It is still a work in progress, but the Bluffton Town Hall construction walls surrounding the upgraded building are gone, a sign that municipal operations are almost ready return home.
The first town council meeting in its new digs is scheduled for 6 p.m. Feb. 12 in the same space that will also be used for judicial proceedings on court days.
“Most of the internal work is complete and Town Hall employees are scheduled to begin moving into their new offices in about two weeks,” said Debbie Szpanka, Bluffton’s public information officer.
A peek through the windows of the new chambers reveals a bright space with plenty of seating room, a wide dais for council members and a light floor surface.
Szpanka said the renovations were made more in keeping with a “Lowcountry architecture theme.”
“There are wood floors, sliding barn doors and an open space concept,” she said. “The features of the Town Hall were inspired by Palmetto Bluff’s architecture, which provides for modern amenities while blending into the Lowcountry’s natural aesthetics.”
Outside, parking lights and landscaping as also works in progress. The parking lot in front on Bridge Street has new markings and the lot across from the town hall is closed off until it is finished. Once construction is complete, there will be additional parking for the council chambers and court room entrance on Pritchard Street.
The entire town staff moved out of the building in November 2017 into different locations around town. The courtroom staff and the town’s customer service staff who provide building permits, building plans submittal, business licensing and general information and assistance, moved into the trailers behind the Town Hall on Pritchard Street.
The council moved its meetings to the Rotary Community Center in Oscar Frazier Community Park; municipal court sessions were conducted at the Beaufort County Government Center on the Bluffton Parkway, Szpanka said. The majority of Town Hall staff, including the town manager, finance and growth management departments, moved to 98 Fording Island Road at the Hampton Parkway intersection.
One big change will be moving the engineering staff members into the Town Hall spaces.
“Those employees have been located in the Bluffton Police Department substation on May River Road for several years due to lack of office space at Town Hall prior to its renovations,” said Szpanka.
Calhoun Station thrift store will be sharing the parking spaces on Pritchard two days a week. Brynne Bowler, president of the all-volunteer board and staff, said they have been open the entire time during the renovations.
“We are where we were. If they let us have a barn, then we’ll have the building that we are in and the barn,” Bowler said. “When they reopen, hopefully more people will remember we are there, too.”
The 501(c)(3) nonprofit is open from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. Wednesdays and Saturdays and will be celebrating its 30th anniversary in May.
The original building, which opened as a school in 1967 and served as a child care center, has also been home to the May River Theatre in the Charles E. Ulmer Auditorium.
Jennifer Green, theatre president, said they were pleased to be coming home soon.
“We hope to be back on our feet in the spring,” she said. “We have a very nice lease with the town. Now we need to raise some funds. We’re kind of in that weird in-between area where we need to do something to raise money but we can’t ask for money because we’re not doing anything.”
Green said they hope to do two plays to keep the costs down before going back to staging the occasional musical.
“We’ll be looking for donations to get back up and running,” she said, “but I’m hoping it will be a bit of a community effort that when people see we’re back, the donations will begin again.”
Both Calhoun Station and May River Theatre will have a $1 per year lease agreement with the town.
The renovations will be finished within the year council estimated and within the $4.3 million budget approved by council in October 2017, said Szpanka.
The total space renovated was 29,233 square feet: Town Hall: 18,803; town council chambers addition: 4,571, May River Theatre: 2,743; Calhoun Station: 3,106.
Szpanka said everything is expected to be finished by mid-February and a ribbon cutting will be scheduled for late February or early March.
Gwyneth J. Saunders is a veteran journalist and freelance writer living in Bluffton.