The boom in Bluffton: How Buckwalter’s extreme makeover is changing town

After years of Bluffton making little progress in luring high-tech companies to Buckwalter Place, a different kind of construction boom is underway, promising an explosion of new businesses, eateries and homes.

The work will essentially remake a section of town with the construction of Washington Square, a large residential and retail community; two health care facilities, including an emergency room and doctor’s offices; a culinary school for technical college students and a giant Kroger grocery store with a wine bar and Starbucks tucked inside. Also planned are second locations for a local coffee house and a pair of beloved Hilton Head restaurants, hundreds of apartments and more.

“(Buckwalter) is ... (the) geographic center of our town,” said Town Manager Marc Orlando. “Buckwalter Place is that middle of the dart board.”

It remains to be seen if Buckwalter Place will match town leaders’ original vision, hatched about 20 years ago, to create a walkable, urban community that would serve as a new town center. High-paying tech and medical companies were supposed to anchor the development, bolstering the economies of Bluffton, Beaufort and Jasper County. For many years, Buckwalter Place’s only large company was eviCore, a managed health care benefits firm that is one of Bluffton’s largest employers.

The town’s dream seemed all but dead in 2015 when, in the wake of the Great Recession, no such companies had been landed and a controversial plan to lure a hotel and meeting center to the site collapsed. The town’s subsequent announcement that a Kroger grocery store would be built, along with a gas station and some retail space, was a distant cry from the town’s ambitious vision.

Bluffton Mayor Lisa Sulka said Tuesday that the housing market crash in 2009 likely hindered the speed of development. The current rebound in the housing market explains why so much construction is happening now, she added.

“Commercial (development) always follows residential (development),” Sulka said. “In 2009 when everything dropped, it pushed everything off five years. We had to get our market back up.”

But not everyone is excited about the changes.

As construction work has gotten underway in recent weeks, some residents have taken to social media, angered by the tree clearing and sudden change to the landscape.

“I was born and raised and lived here my entire 61 years,” wrote Cathie Boulware on a Bluffton community page on Facebook. “It brings tears to my eyes to see what has happened to the Bluffton that was ‘a state of mind.’”

“They keep cutting down trees everywhere!” another commenter wrote. “I retired here four years ago and it’s not the same. People come here and love it here (because) its appearance is different. There used to be landscaping. It is depressing to me.”

Town officials defend the changes, saying everything is going according to plan.

“This (town) council and staff is really working out the plan that was put in place 18 years ago,” Sulka said. “Now we are getting to see results from it.”

“I think it’s just human nature to get nervous when trees come down,” she said, adding that shrubbery will be planted as the projects advance to create a more natural look.

One piece of the Buckwalter plan Sulka said has moved slower than others is the “living component.” So far, there are neighborhoods surrounding Buckwalter Place, but a walkable community within it has not yet been built.

That is on track to change. Thirty-five acres near Kroger has been cleared to make way for Washington Square, a new residential and retail community.

A venture by Speyside Partners, LLC, the walkable village will include retail, residential and office spaces, according to David Johnson, property owner and developer.

“We are putting about three quarters of an acre in the middle of it for a lawn like you see in Savannah,” Johnson said. “We are in the midst of putting the infrastructure in. We have cleared the land and now have to contract to build the roads and utilities.”

Johnson said he does not yet know a completion date for construction, rent prices for apartments or the retail stores that will become tenants.

He added that there has been interest from an “high-quality” assisted living community to be built toward the back of the property.

“Hospitals are locating there, the movie theater has stood the test of time and others are locating around it,” Orlando said of Buckwalter Parkway. “It’s always where our community was zoned for commercial development.”

Buckwalter Place’s future

Here’s what’s planned for the Bluffton spot:

South of the Broad Healthcare: The medical facility is a joint venture between Beaufort Memorial Hospital and the Medical University of South Carolina, and the first of its kind in the state. The 65,000-square-feet facility will sit on about 12.5 acres near the intersection of Bluffton Parkway, Innovation Drive and Buckwalter Parkway, according to the plan submitted to the town’s department of growth management. The facility would bring about 125 jobs to the area and include orthopedic and cardiology care, along with labs, imaging and general surgery on its list of treatments. It includes a 15-bed emergency room and 20 beds for acute care, ambulatory care, outpatient surgery and other ancillary visits to the hospital. A 4,000 square-foot pocket park is expected to be adjacent to wetlands next to the property, along with pedestrian pathways and a helipad on the building.

St. Joseph’s/Candler: Work has already begun to build the 40,000 square-foot, $22 million facility, which is expected to open in 2020. Patients will have access to an array of health services including primary care, physical therapy, wound care, X-ray and MRI imaging, as well as radiation and oncology treatment.

Expected to open in 2020, work continues on the 40,000 square-foot St. Joeph’s/Candler medical facility. Drew Martin

The Don Ryan Center for Innovation: Work began in November on a new building for the nonprofit, which helps start-up companies get off the ground. The new 3,000-square-foot facility, to be located next to Kroger, is scheduled to open later this year.

Technical College of the Lowcountry Culinary School: A new culinary school is to be constructed next to the new Kroger, according to the Buckwalter Place Master Plan.

Kroger: Set to open May 15, the 113,00 square-foot facility will house the grocery store and other vendors in the future. Amenities include a beer and wine bar, sushi bar and a Starbucks. The Krogery Fuel Center just off Buckwalter Parkway on Innovation Drive, opened in November.

created by dji camera Drew Martin

One Hot Mama’s: The Hilton Head restaurant, known for its famous slow-cooked barbecue, is expected to open a 4,300 square-foot Buckwalter Place location in June adjacent to the Cinemark Bluffton movie theater. The spot used to be Hinchey’s Chicago Bar and Grill.

Frankie Bones: Another SERG Group restaurant, Frankie Bones Restaurant & Lounge — which already has a location on Hilton Head Island — is scheduled to open near the new Kroger in 2020. Construction is underway on the 5,400-square-foot restaurant, known for its steaks, seafood and pasta and its 1960s Rat Pack vibe.

Corner Perk Cafe: The popular Old Town Bluffton coffee house is expected to open next to Ace Hardware in a 2,500 square-foot space with a mezzanine, according to owner Josh Cooke. The new location will provide seating for 80 to 100 guests and have outdoor seating as well. Construction is expected to start this summer.

Hilton Head Christian Academy: The private school is relocating to a nearly 28-acre site next to Masters Way and Pinecrest Way.

Cross Schools expansion: Cross Schools recently completed construction of a 10,000-square-foot gym and new school wing, according to Brad Shultz, head of the school. The school is in the process of building a 500-seat chapel on campus with the hope of having it open in time for Christmas. Behind the campus, the school has another 40 acres available for building where, Shultz said, the school plans to build sports fields and an aquatic center in the next two years.

St. Andrew By-The-Sea United Methodist Church: The church, which has branches on Hilton Head and in Bluffton, purchased just over 10 acres on Buckwalter Parkway to serve as its new campus, according to the church’s website. The new location will be across the street from the Kroger Fuel Center.

Stockade Self Storage: Owned by Wappoo LLC, the two story structure is under construction on Carolina Bluff Drive.

Vineyard Bluffton: The senior assisted living community plans to build at 25 Cassidy Road right off U.S. 278. The facility plans to offer up to two bedroom floorplans. It will open this fall, according to its website. Residents will have amenity options including an indoor fitness center, movie theater, outdoor trails, game rooms and complimentary transportation.

Exterior_Vineyard Bluffton.png
Vineyard Bluffton is expected to open sometime this fall near the intersection of Buckalter Parkway and U.S. 278. Vineyard Bluffton
Related stories from Hilton Head Island Packet