It’s Wednesday night at Captain Woody’s in the Bluffton Promenade. As trivia night kicks off, there’s not a seat to be found in the upstairs bar.
This is a scene that owners Russell and Shannon Anderson and general manager Lauren Jordan banked on when few else did.
Five years ago, the Promenade was a great idea that seemed destined to fall victim to the national economic collapse.
“We knew there was a need for this concept, where you didn’t need to go to the island or anywhere else to have a good time,” Jordan said. “We could have never predicted business to be so good and for the Promenade to have taken off like it has.”
That’s music to Bill Herbkersman’s ears. It wasn’t too long ago that the S.C. state representative thought his dream of a thriving, walkable town center for Bluffton was leading his family to financial ruin.
“We were dying right along with the economy. There were more sleepless nights than I can remember,” Herbkersman said. “My wife, Mary, would not give up on this project. My brother and CFO, Tom, was constantly crunching the numbers to make sure we could keep moving forward.”
And at a time when bankers weren’t returning calls from even their spouses, one local banker stood by the project.
“Monty Lafitte at Palmetto State Bank never wavered. He may not have always had the answers we wanted, but we always knew he was in our corner,” Herbkersman said. “If I had 10 more condos, if I had 10 more commercial lots, we could rent them all out tomorrow. That’s an incredible turnaround and it could have never happened without folks sticking by us.”
It took longer to build than the owners hoped, but when Woody’s opened on June 20, 2009, it immediately gave the developer proof positive that the Promenade could be a winner.
“Goals and expectations were far exceeded from the get-go,” Jordan said of the restaurant’s launch. “We expected business, but not that much. A lot of the Sun City crowd that was going to the island went to Bluffton. But I was also amazed at how much the locals loved to be out and about. The concept that this was going to be more of a 9-to-5, Monday-to-Friday crowd immediately changed. And we kept seeing more and more tourists coming, which was a happy surprise.”
Woody’s joined Cork’s Wine Company to officially create the trend of successful Promenade launches. Soon after, Ted Huffman had similar success with the opening of Bluffton BBQ.
“We saw the vision from day one, it was just a matter of keeping forward progress through the tough times,” Huffman said of his and his wife’s decision to join the Promenade. “This is something Bluffton needed. I don’t think folks truly knew how bad they wanted something like this until it started to take shape.”
Where many storefronts were left vacant, development projects were cancelled and half-done buildings were abandoned, Herbkersman managed to keep momentum in the project.
“I didn’t plan on partners, but thankfully we had another forward thinker in Donald Stevens, who bought up the lots at the front of the development. We always had something in motion. Folks like Marc Orlando with the town never wavered. It kept folks positive about the project,” Herbkersman said.
He may not have had total control over the project, but slowly, the Promenade took shape. Businesses like Garden Gate Nursery and Bear’s Comics started to add variety to the development. Nearby, the Old Town Dispensary, The Cottage and Vineyard 55 added variety and a walking corridor of interesting eateries and watering holes.
“Business leads to business, and the best part about it is that everyone is supporting each other,” Jordan said. “There’s a real sense of community building here. I think we can all feel the momentum building. Growth is exciting to be a part of.”
Herbkersman said he’s had plenty of interest from national retailers and chain eateries, but is committed to keeping the Promenade local.
“We are 100 percent leased out and 100 percent sold out, other than the nine parcels that we’re keeping to develop ourselves,” he said. “The nationals have knocked plenty but I’ve been in Bluffton for so long, it just didn’t feel right. As long as local businesses continue to thrive and we make smart decisions, there’s no need to go that route.”
One such local who is the latest success story is Josh Cooke, a Bluffton native who started The Corner Perk on the corner of Burnt Church Road and S.C. 46 in 2009. The location quickly gained a cult-like customer base, but Cooke always had bigger plans.
“It became clear where the center of town was forming. We almost leased a place on Boundary Street near Dubois Park, but it didn’t happen,” Cooke said. “I would have never thought the lot facing Calhoun Street was going to be affordable, but Bill Herbkersman worked with me from the minute we first talked.”
Even two years of rejection from the banks didn’t stop Cooke from staying firm to his dream. The new Corner Perk opened July 21, just a half mile from its old location but with an expanded menu and a bigger staff – up from two servers to 14.
“It is absolutely stunning how much of a difference a half mile down the road has made,” Cooke said. “We set some pretty lofty goals in our business plan with the bank and we’ve hit them so far.”
Cooke said he put more capital into building the location than he did in more than five years of sales at the old location. That’s how much he believes in the future of the Promenade.
“I’m a young guy, but I believe in Bluffton. Always have, even when all my friends couldn’t get out of here quick enough,” Cooke said. “For an old town that was a redneck hippie town in '70s, '80s and '90s to be such a thriving nightlife and a day-trip spot, it’s pretty cool to be part of it.”
Cooke relishes the figurative and literal bridge he’s built between Calhoun and the development.
“I think we were missing that gateway that got people moving in both directions. That was my vision for the spot and we’re seeing it happen so far,” he said. “We’re getting a much more upscale crowd than I’d dreamed of, people coming out of the plantations. They’re getting a whole new impression of us and of the entire area. Folks are blown away in a good way. We’re seeing this development become ingrained into people’s pattern of living.”
The Infield Bar and Grill gives sports fan a spot to hang, Moon Mi Pizza and the soon-to-open Rivertown Tavern provide pizza and burger options, and the high-end Bluffton Room opened in late August.
Both Herbkersman and the business owners had ideas of what’s needed to keep the buzz going – more parking, more retail boutique shops, more galleries, family eating and entertainment options.
There are those that worry the Promenade may turn into Bluffton’s version of Hilton Head's Barmuda Triangle.
Herbkersman, one of the few developers to see a project through these days, says his “baby” is just starting to take its first real steps, but that there’s enough variety to keep the development from becoming only known for one thing.
“I’m a couple years away from seeing a profit, something that would have never been possible just a couple years ago,” he said. “I’m just so thankful that the town has embraced it. I come from a family of seven brothers, we had to scrape for everything we got. So I was never going to let the defeat catch up with us.”
As for Jordan, one of the first to buy-in, she and her owners are excited to see the promise become the reality.
“There’s more building coming, townhouses around the corner being built. There’s just more and more to get excited about,” she said. “The walkers, the drivers, the golf cart folks, they’re all coming out. We’re becoming a gathering place. I can’t wait to see the heights this place can hit.”