The business complexion of Old Town is changing.
In the past two months, there have been seven retail businesses that have shut down in the one-square-mile downtown of Bluffton.
But as one door closes for some business owners, another door opens, and there are a slew of new businesses moving into town.
The recent departures began with Corks Wine Bar closing its doors in July. The business was an original anchor of The Promenade and changed hands a couple times since original owners Josh Luman and Gabby Farrell sold Corks in 2013.
The most current owners, Neil and Lorraine Ritter, turned Corks into more of a late-night music venue – which caused acrimony with upstairs residents and Promenade board members alike.
The Ritters were as frustrated as their live music fans were about leaving Old Town, but are in the middle of renovating a building at 1533 Fording Island Road in Moss Creek that will be the new home for Uncorked Wine, Music, Bar and Restaurant.
The building that housed Corks was sold and fellow tenants Signore’s Coastal Art and Robert Hommel Gallery of Nature have also moved out.
Then came news on Sept. 2 that the DIY workshop The Wooden Loft was closing its 16 Church St. location. The business was less than a year old.
“We want to thank all of our past and current customers for all the support over this year year,” co-owner Meghan Zalich said in announcing the closing. “Unfortunately, this economy has taken a toll on this endeavor.”
The building at the corner of Boundary and Church streets is a prime retail location and has reportedly already been subleased.
Mark Weisner said goodbye to Bluffton Trading Post fans on Sept. 5, with a simple Facebook post saying, “Thanks for the memories.”
He opened the trading post in October 2019 as part beer-tasting room, part retail shop and part live music venue.
Weisner will continue to run his popular Sunset Party Series, with the next event, Blufftoberfest, scheduled for Sept. 24 at Oyster Factory Park.
Then came news of Ben and Jerry’s closing, as owners Jeff and Bay Lobb posted on Sept. 7 that they would be shuttering four days later.
All signs point toward a thriving business, but simply time for the Lobbs to move on to the next chapter after five years on The Promenade.
“We want to thank our amazing staff, and we are grateful to everyone who has supported us, created memories at the shop, and helped us make a positive impact in the community,” the Lobbs said in a goodbye post on social media.
Bluffton resident Shelly Workman summed up the community’s reaction to losing the iconic ice cream shop.
“It makes me sad, all these businesses leaving Old Town,” she said.
Two local ice cream shops, it is hoped, will fill the May River Road corridor sweet tooth void, with Joe’s Ice Cream and Beverage Co. at 15 Bruin Road and The Ice Cream Stop in May River Crossing.
The wave of closings is a shock to residents, but Promenade founder Bill Herbkersman said the economy is not impacting the demand for businesses wanting in on Promenade retail space.
“I know what economic downturns look like. We went through some very low lows before The Promenade began to catch on,” he said. “Where we’re at right now, I’m sad to see these small businesses leave but it opens up opportunities and there is no shortage of folks ready to seize that chance.”
Already we’ve seen Cassandra’s Kitchen move into the former Signore’s space at 14 Promenade St. with a Sept. 1 soft opening. The kitchenware and home goods store and home for all things Ina Garten originally opened on Red Cedar Street next to Lot 9 Brewing Company. Owner Cassandra Schultz plans to keep that space for inventory storage with the Promenade location as the main storefront.
Next up could be a high-end seafood restaurant in the former Cork’s space. Restauranteur Brian Behnke has alerted Old Town business owners of his plan to open a high-end raw bar with crudo and sushi, seafood towers and craft cocktails. Herbkersman confirmed the talks with Behnke but gave no timeline on an opening.
Herbkersman also said that Monkee’s ladies clothing boutique, a chain with more than 40 locations across the Southeast, plans to open in the building as well. He also expects a home décor business to fill another open space.
As for the former Ben and Jerry’s home, reliable sources have said Lobb sold the building and that new owners are planning a charcuterie-focus eatery and wine bar in the space.
There is also talk that a dance club along the lines of Columbia’s Social Bar and Lounge is looking to make the Promenade corridor home.
“I thank the dedicated owners that took a chance on The Promenade and have helped make it a premier destination and a calling card to highlight the exciting vibe that is building in Bluffton,” Herbkersman said. “I’m excited to see what the next year brings us.”
Greater Bluffton Chamber of Commerce CEO Natalie Osterman shares Herbkersman’s enthusiasm. Osterman has been an instrumental part of rebuilding the organization focused on promoting and advocating for small businesses in town, and while acknowledging the volatility of the current economy on a national level, she believes Bluffton will continue to buck that trend.
Just as the Chamber itself has experienced some bumps in establishing its stature and advocacy for local businesses, she said that the recent spat of closings is more the sign of growing pains than a negative trend.
“In today’s economy, there are increased challenges in conducting business. The news of any business closing is upsetting no matter the location, and often comes with negative thoughts or concerns,” Osterman said. “The Greater Bluffton Chamber of Commerce sees and feels the growth that our community is experiencing. We can confidently say that Bluffton is growing, and we have a thriving business community. It is an exciting time to be in Bluffton.”
Tim Wood is a veteran journalist based in Bluffton. Contact him at email@example.com.