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Bluffton, company make deal on Buckwalter Place construction

New construction at Buckwalter Place in Bluffton could break ground as early as the first quarter of next year, following a deal struck between the town of Bluffton and a development company.

The town recently entered a public-private partnership with Southeastern Development Associates, which owns a large undeveloped swath of the shopping area. The developer plans to build a 113,000-square-foot Kroger Marketplace surrounded by other retailers and apartments.

Under the agreement, the town, which owns about 19 acres in the development area, will provide infrastructure improvements such as underground utilities, road extensions and a public park in the center of Buckwalter Place.

In turn, Southeastern Development Associates, formerly known as Blanchard and Calhoun Commercial, will build a 3,000-square-foot office to house the Don Ryan Center for Innovation and give the town a seat on the development's decision-making board.

"The town will invest in public infrastructure, in turn (the developer is) investing in Buckwalter Place," town manager Marc Orlando said last week. "... That's a great success."

Southeastern Development Associates bought 52 acres in Buckwalter Place late last year. Plans to build the Kroger and surrounding apartments and shops have been in the works for months.

The company "will build a high-quality, mixed-use development with great public spaces in the core of the Buckwalter area," president Mark Senn said in a recent news release.

The initial $30 million phase of that project could be completed by mid-2017, according to the release.

Prior to the recent economic downturn, town leaders envisioned Buckwalter Place as a medical and technology hub anchored by the headquarters of CareCore National, now known as eviCore.

"More than a decade ago, there was a vision (for Buckwalter Place)," Orlando said. "Of course, that vision has changed to a degree. ... But (the town's) vision has always been a commerce park."

When plans for the new Kroger began to emerge earlier this year, some town leaders expressed disappointment that a technology or medical company -- and the accompanying high-paying jobs -- was not coming to Buckwalter Place.

Mayor Lisa Sulka said the town has maintained ownership of some of the Buckwalter Place property in part because drawing such a company is still possible.

"We still have some land that we can use to attract some more businesses similar to (eviCore)," she said Monday.

The Bluffton Public Development Corporation, a nonprofit organization tasked with attracting new business to the town, helped negotiate the public-private partnership with Southeastern Development Associates.

Berl Davis, president of the development corporation, said Monday the agreement is a step in the right direction for both the town and the developer.

"It's very exciting. We are just happy to see the project move forward," he said.

Davis called the agreement "a really big win for the Don Ryan Center."

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The center, a partnership between the town and Clemson University, serves as an incubator for local startup companies. Since its inception in 2012, the center has operated out of office space borrowed from eviCore.

The center's new home will be built on land currently owned by Southeastern Development Associates and deeded to the town once construction is completed.

With a permanent home, the "center can expand its footprint," Orlando said.

The town has $2 million in capital-improvement funds allocated for Buckwalter Place this fiscal year.

The town has also been awarded more than $4 million in grants and other funding from local, state and federal sources to support the development, according to the town.

If the town in unable to fully fund the planned infrastructure improvements, the developer will complete the projects "at its own cost," according to the agreement.

"It's huge that someone is ready to invest there," Sulka said, calling the partnership "a home run."

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