Chef Bernard Bennett is the culinary visionary behind Okan, soon to be opening at The Bridge.

The Bridge at Calhoun mixed-use building project has finally reached the beginning days of the finish line stage.

It’s a home stretch of refining build-outs and aesthetic details that developer Matt Cunningham and his team were losing faith would ever happen.

“We had this dogged determination to show folks the vision here. But even when you have that unwavering focus, life events around you can crumble the dream,” Cunningham said. “We are in an unprecedented time for commercial development with a volatile economy and a world health pandemic. So, to be able to show off this gorgeous space, it is a huge moment for all of us.”

The $9 million project comprises three buildings united by a coastal architectural style in homage to the original structures that once adorned the corner of Bridge and Calhoun Streets. Cunningham said the goal was to blend the historical look and feel of neighboring buildings while at the same time creating an innovative concept that honors the artistic ingenuity of the Calhoun Street district. 

“It’s been a journey. I thank town officials for giving us the chance to see through the vision here,” Cunningham said of his back-and-forth evolving of the project with entities like the Historic Preservation Commission. “That was healthy and spirited conversation. I understand the concerns. I think we have slowly won over the folks that were averse to the space evolving, and I get their hesitancy. We just had to sell folks on the end goal here and deliver on those promises.”

The guiding creative mandate for The Bridge was “art” as the focus for a mixed residential and commercial build. 

“That takes on many forms, art as a business, culinary artistry and the actual output of the artistic community,” Cunningham said. The two buildings that are most front-facing to the public have framed built-in canvas spaces meant for large murals, with the aim to highlight a rotating lineup of local artists.

“We want to bring beauty to the community, to educate folks on up-and-coming artists and create a marketplace for the artists to spotlight their work,” he said.

Cunningham has high praise for the design partners in the project – Court-Atkins, Shoreline Construction, J. Elder Studio of Savannah and Balfour Beatty out of Charleston. 

“We just couldn’t have hoped to work with a more professional crew that were all aligned in the ultimate goal here,” Cunningham said. 

The first residential tenants have begun moving in after the buildings received certifications of occupancy in mid-October. Six of the 11 residential units are already occupied, according to Cunningham – three full-time tenants and three staged properties that will be used as AirBNBs. 

The commercial side of the project is also taking shape. Two of the six commercial spaces are well into their buildout – a restaurant and a high-end clothier. 

You might have seen the Okan food truck out and about at Lowcountry events. The West Africa-Caribbean cuisine is prepared by Chef Bernard Bennett, an acclaimed Midwest native who worked in Chicago kitchens for the past decade to master his craft. 

Bennett will expand his food truck offerings into The Bridge’s first restaurant space. You can get a preview of what to expect from the menu on Okan’s Instagram, @okanbluffton.

J. Parker Ltd. is a name known more to Coastal Empire residents, with three Savannah-area locations, on Broughton Street, midtown at the Twelve Oaks Shopping Center, and in the Plant Riverside District on River Street. J. Parker has been dressing Savannah men since first opening their doors in 1972 and has recently expanded to offer women’s clothing and outerwear. You can learn about what to expect from the clothier at jparkerltd.com.

Both businesses are aiming for a mid-February 2023 opening. 

“We’re making progress on both storefronts. Timelines are at the mercy of the supply chain, but we’re feeling like early spring is a realistic goal,” Cunningham said. 

The developer is excited about the businesses that are occupying The Bridge, fulfilling the goal to spotlight women and African-American entrepreneurs.

“Working with someone like Chef Bernard, taking that dream from food truck to a brick-and-mortar eatery, it’s exciting. That’s the mission here, to bring new voices to the Lowcountry and have this as a forefront for artistic innovation in Old Town,” Cunningham said.

All six of the commercial spaces are either under contract or in final stages of negotiations. The one other brand that has publicly announced their move to The Bridge is a home décor company out of California, Fiddle + Shine House Market. Cunningham did not have an exact timeline for the retailer, but expects a mid- to late 2023 opening. 

A luxury lingerie shop is slated to occupy the space next to Okan. Cunningham said that agreements are in place and the build-out should begin in the next quarter.

The commercial end of the project is slated to be fully built out by early 2024.

Cunningham said the plan is to have an open house and grand opening party in early spring 2023 to formally christen the space. He hopes that with a series of open spaces on the property, The Bridge will be a hub for community events.

“We are looking for purposeful engagement at every opportunity. We want to have local schools showcase their art on site, to use this property as a living canvas for creativity in all forms,” Cunningham said. 

For more on The Bridge at Calhoun, visit thebridge-collective.com. 

Tim Wood is a veteran journalist based in Bluffton. timwood@blufftonsun.com