Bluffton's ambitious vision for high-tech park diminished with Kroger plan

Bluffton leaders have long dreamed that Buckwalter Place would become the town's second city center -- an urban, high-tech contrast to the quaint boutiques and eateries in Old Town.

Technology or medical companies would move into the park to be closer to CareCore National, which is headquartered there, and that would bring an influx of high-paying jobs, town leaders have said.

But now that dream could be wilting in the shadow of a 113,000-square-foot Kroger Marketplace.

"It is what it is. What can we do?" town councilwoman Karen Lavery said this week. "It is a bit (of a dream lost), but other places weren't knocking at our door to ... bring that stuff here. So what do you do?"

Now town leaders are considering a plan to turn the rest of the undeveloped the land at Buckwalter Place into an open-air shopping center, anchored by a mega-Kroger to be flanked by stores and restaurants. The new plans, unveiled last month, also include about 150 apartments, a two-acre park in the center of the development and a new gas station on Buckwalter Parkway.

The new design has been crafted by Blanchard and Calhoun Commercial, which bought the land in December. The plan follows a similar pattern the firm introduced to the area with Kroger at Shelter Cove Towne Centre on Hilton Head Island.

The plans now head to Bluffton's Planning Commission and Town Council for approval, and the developer hopes to begin construction in late summer.

However, a new grocery store and another 58,000 square feet of retail and restaurant space is a far cry from the ambitious vision set out for the technology park conceived nearly 15 years ago, town leaders acknowledge.

Service-industry jobs at the stores and restaurants destined for such a center won't pay the wages they hoped to bring Bluffton residents, Lavery and councilman Larry Toomer said. The current plans don't include a high-revenue hotel or meeting center, as initially desired, although Blanchard and Calhoun Commercial is studying the possibility, they said.

But Blanchard and Calhoun's plan for Buckwalter Place is more than the town could do for the long-underdeveloped property, Lavery and Toomer said.

Last summer, Toomer was the swing vote in the decision to kill a secretive deal for the Bluffton Public Development Corporation to buy the land at Buckwalter Place to try to lure a hotel and meeting center to the property. The deal would have capitalized on contributions from the county, school district and Santee Cooper to secure the land. But Toomer and Lavery, who also opposed the plan along with Councilman Fred Hamilton, worried the deal came with no guarantees.

The deal was the town's most aggressive attempt to bring new neighbors to CareCore, its largest employer. CareCore moved its headquarters to the park 10 years ago, and town leaders and the company have hoped since then to make the company an anchor for a tech park at Buckwalter Place.

In a letter to Town Council last spring, CareCore CEO John Arlotta urged the council to support the deal "to reserve (the land) for companies similar to CareCore."

As the deal crumbled, though, so did the town's ability to control the park and what would be built next to Bluffton's crown-jewel company, said Roberts Vaux, chairman of the Bluffton Public Development Corporation.

Now the town has no choice but to move forward with the new owner's vision for the property and to work with Blanchard and Calhoun to incorporate its suggestions, town leaders said.

"You can't go back and play what if," Vaux said. "Had we had a hotel and a medical complex, would I be happier? At this point, yes. But then again, I haven't seen the final thing and all the details about what Kroger's going to do. This deal could turn out better for the town in the long run."

The town also still owns several acres between the new center and CareCore, which could support up to 80,000 square feet of new office space, Vaux and town manager Marc Orlando said. That still gives town leaders hope that some portion of the tech-park dream could come true.

"I do feel like it's settling, but a lot has happened since (the original vision)," Lavery said.

Now the town has a true economic-development opportunity, with no lures and no bait, that it can't pass up -- regardless of the officials' hopes for the property, Toomer said.

"If the exact same thing came before me today, even with all these plans being made right now, I would not have changed my vote," Toomer said. "I like this a whole lot better than I liked that. The big reason is there's some qualified developer that's going to put a whole lot of their money in it.

"You can keep (your vision) in your mind, but times change, and you've got to fit in the day you're living in."

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