Bluffton town manager reflects on first year on the job

Marc Orlando has been Bluffton's town manager for a little more than a year -- time he called "extremely busy and extremely fast paced."

Orlando, who took over the town's top non-elected position after the retirement of Anthony Barrett, reflected on his first year on the job earlier this week.

Here are five issues and challenges he has faced in his first year:

1. Public safety

"We do have very, very serious public safety issues, especially right now with a murder," Orlando said, referring to the ongoing investigation into the recent killing of local restaurateur Johnathan Cherol.

"I work closely with (Bluffton Police Chief Joey Reynolds) and we have been expanding programs in the police department," he said.

The town recently opened a police substation on May River Road and installed a series of security cameras throughout the Old Town area.

2. Environmental preservation

Last month, efforts to preserve the May River took a step back when the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control closed a mile-long portion of the river for shellfish harvesting due to rising bacteria levels.

But Orlando said the town is constantly working to gain ground on preservation issues.

"The town has a long history of making big adjustments to correct some of the issues of water quality in the May River," he said.

Over the past year, crews have continued to install sewer lines in the Buck Island-Simmonsville neighborhood. Sewers eliminate the need for septic tanks, which are often blamed as a top culprit for river pollution.

Earlier this month, the town terminated a development agreement that would have allowed a firm to build 449 homes and 119,000 square feet of commercial space on a plot of land near the headwaters of the Okatie River.

Instead, that land is now poised to become a preservation area.

3. Old Town

Bluffton's historic district is the heart of the town and Orlando said "it really makes sense that we spend as much time, energy and funding (planning for) our Old Town."

Particular focus has been paid to the historic district because town leaders have more power to enact policy there, he said.

"The rest of the town is really (managed) through planned unit developments and development agreements."

Town officials recently took steps to address parking problems in Old Town by implementing time limits on spaces along Calhoun Street.

Smoking in Old Town's Dubois Park was also recently banned.

In the past year, efforts have also begun to improve Oyster Factory Park and the May River streetscape.

The town is also preparing to apply to the state for recognition of Old Town as a designated arts and cultural district.

4. Affordable housing

As Bluffton has grown in recent years, rental prices for homes and apartments have increased.

There are some who believe low and middle-income residents are being priced out of the town.

"There are a lot of working folks here who ... have a hard time finding a good housing product because the supply and demand is tilted," Orlando said.

He said town staff, along with the Affordable Housing Committee, "have discussions and dialogue" about this issue "on a daily basis."

Orlando said over the past year the town has sought public-private partnerships with developers to build more affordable and workforce housing units.

"We know that to be successful, we need the private enterprise working with us. And we know for (developers) to be successful, we need to be working with them."

Town staffers have also spent the past year working on a set of incentives aimed at enticing developers to build more affordable units.

5. Buckwalter Place

Town leaders and developers once envisioned Buckwalter Place as hub for technology-based firms with CareCore National's headquarters as its anchor.

"That vision has changed to a degree," Orlando said. "The economic downturn changed some of that."

Despite that, Orlando said the town has not given up on the area, saying town leaders still see the area as an important "commerce park."

Earlier this year town officials and developers began creating 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.

"We are excited to build out our commerce park," Orlando said.

The town has also negotiated an agreement over the past year that will provide the Don Ryan Center for Innovation with a permanent home in Buckwalter Place.

That agreement is poised to go into effect in the coming months, Orlando said.

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