Beaufort News

Bluffton Children's Center explores expansion options

Instead of council meetings and municipal court, Bluffton's Town Hall could one day be a place for nap times, snack breaks and learning the alphabet.

Expanding into town hall if the government were to move out is just one of several options the Bluffton Children's Center board of trustees will consider as it evaluates how and where the center should grow.

The Beaufort County Board of Education voted April 19 to allow the Children's Center, which subleases space from town government, to take over Town Hall, if town staff clears out.

A move isn't on the near horizon, but it could occur before 2025, when the town's $1-a-year lease with the school board ends. Bluffton might design a new town hall and scout locations for it next fiscal year.

The Children's Center is a private non-profit organization that provides affordable child care and early education for working families.

The town's lease requires permission from the school board to sublease the space, town manager Anthony Barrett wrote in an email.

The Children's Center is "bursting at the seams," and its board is focused on finding a solution, site director Cecile Bibaud said.

Board member Sue Kroupa said now that the Hilton Head Island Children's Center has relocated to a $4.5 million building after a multi-year capital fundraising campaign, it's time to create a strategic plan for the Bluffton outpost.

"One of the objectives is the feasibility of relocating in the next five years, whether it's a new building or an existing building," Kroupa said.

The Bluffton Children's Center was formed about 20 years ago, about 20 years after the Hilton Head organization. Both branches have the same mission of quality and affordable childcare for working families, largely through a sliding-scale tuition based on family income. About 95 percent of the children enrolled at the two centers pay less than full price, Kroupa said.

About 135 children attend the Bluffton center. Hilton Head's center has about 180 children.

As Bluffton grows, the number of children who need the center's services will increase, Bibaud said.

Head Start programs and parenting classes are held in the same building, contributing to the lack of space, she said.

The building is also outdated and costly to maintain. The heating and cooling system, for example, is so old that no one closer than Charleston can fix it, Bibaud said.

Board of trustees chairman David Ames said it's too early to say whether the center's strategic plan will call for expansion, relocation or a new building.