BRIDGE AT CALHOUN PROJECT AIMS TO EMPOWER ENTREPRENEURS
When Matt Cunningham left the corporate world, he was determined to do something different — and make a difference.
By this time next year, he intends to deliver on that goal.
Cunningham is the developer behind the Bridge at Calhoun, a decidedly different project taking shape at the corner of Calhoun and Bridge streets in Old Town Bluffton.
The multi-use enterprise has multiple purposes. At first glance, the three-building complex has familiar features : a restaurant, a retail boutique, an art studio and gallery, a butcher and a bakery.
The difference maker, Cunningham says, is the overarching purpose of the project: to create a community within a community to celebrate unique interests and provide a path to prosperity for women and diverse entrepreneurs.
When the Bridge opens (plans are for May 2022), it is expected to offer art from other continents, foods rarely served in South Carolina and hand-fabricated jewelry from faraway nations including Malawi, Vietnam, Haiti and Guatemala.
A measure of success for the Bridge, Cunningham says, will be how effectively it establishes and sustains businesses owned and managed by women and minority operators.
“Here I am, living in the Promenade, and Bluffton is thriving,” he said. “But it’s not going to be as interesting a success unless you have diverse participation that encourages opportunities and builds authentic community.”
For Cunningham, 46, the Bridge initiative is a significant change from his 14-year career in the health care services industry.
Cunningham — a West Point graduate and former Army Ranger who served in the invasion of Iraq — came to Bluffton in 2018 after living on Hilton Head Island. He arrived in the Lowcountry in 2007 as an executive with CareCore National, a medical benefits provider that evolved into eviCore in Bluffton. Among his duties: managing call centers, operations, driving innovation, costs, mergers and acquisitions, and head of business transformation.
After stepping away from corporate life, he acquired the property at 71 Calhoun in 2019 “with the express purpose of creating a demonstrative model for inclusive growth.”
His vision for the Bridge has roots that extend to his childhood in East Lansing, Michigan, where his father taught veterinary medicine at Michigan State University, and his mother operated a restaurant.
Both parents had interests that embraced diversity and foreign cultures. His father was a Peace Corps volunteer in West Africa before becoming a veterinarian. A passionate sculptor, he was an apprentice to several African artists and now creates large, bronze and stainless-steel abstract public art.
While Cunningham was deployed with the Army, he partnered with his father to create and dedicate sculptures to communities in Egypt and Iraq.
His mother is the retired owner of The Traveler’s Club International Restaurant and Tuba Museum in Okemas, near East Lansing. The restaurant operated for some three decades, switching up the menu every other month to feature international cuisine.
Her partner played the Sousaphone, which he incorporated into the restaurant’s design.
Arts and food are vital ingredients for the Bridge. The restaurant will feature so-called “foodways” practices that blend cultural, social and economic elements. Food options are expected to emphasize West Africa, the Caribbean and the Gullah culture.
The restaurant name — okan — means “heart” or “soul” and is taken from the Yoruba people of western Africa.
Words have meaning at the Bridge. Also scheduled for the project is Fabula Collective, a boutique to feature jewelry and handiwork of women from Colombia, Haiti, Vietnam and Guatemala, among others.
Owner Christian Grand, a Bluffton resident, says “Fabula” is derived from the Latin word for “story.”
The store’s offerings will reflect the lives and experiences of international women workers and entrepreneurs.
“Our mission is universal — to create a platform where women are empowered to build a future for themselves and their communities,” the Fabula Collective states on its website.
The art gallery — Studio Amiri — is the province of artist Amiri Farris and curator Angela Dore. Farris says plans call for an active center that will include classes, exhibits and drop-ins “to have something all the time to bring people in to engage with the arts.”
As work on the site continues, Farris intends to display outdoor murals and art at the intersection of Bridge and Calhoun.
WHAT’S PLANNED FOR THE BRIDGE AT CALHOUN?
Site work began in April on the Bridge at Calhoun, a three-building, multi-use project on a one-acre site in Old Town Bluffton. The project includes:
A restaurant named okan, to feature international cuisine with ties to the trans-Atlantic slave trade.
Studio Amiri, a contemporary art studio and home to the non-profit SLAY (Support Lowcountry Artists, Y’all).
Sprout Mama artisan bread, bakery and café.
Fabula Collective, a boutique to feature jewelry and hand-crafted items.
Paddle and Pour by JB Boards, offering private-label paddle boards, bike rentals and a coffee/beer bar.
The Gourmet Butchery, gourmet market and butcher.
Rental residential: Eleven units ranging from 880-square feet to 1,826 square feet.