Making Bluffton Shine: Lisa Sulka

People

Lisa Sulka is the first female mayor of Bluffton, currently serving her third term. But it isn’t a position she’d ever thought she’d be in.

Sulka grew up in Prosperity, on the northern side of Lake Murray. Growing up in that area, where several towns connected into one larger community, Sulka’s furthest relative lived 90 minutes away in Clemson. Surrounded by family, she and her cousins would go outside in the morning and not come in until supper.

Sulka attended Clemson University and spent her first summer on Hilton Head Island after her junior year. A friend’s mother had a house on Brahms Point with a view of the water on both sides, and she charged Sulka and her friends $60 a month to stay with her for the tourist season. The teens worked at area restaurants and loved every minute. It was a cool place to be, she said, unlike Prosperity, where the town had recently hung a welcome sign that read: “Prosperity, where senior citizens come to retire.” She had such a good time that after graduating from Clemson, she moved to the island.

“I knew I wanted to live by the water, but I had no idea what I wanted to do,” Sulka said. A few years later — plus a marriage, and two kids — her husband’s company put him in charge of opening the second bank in Bluffton and the family moved across the bridge.

LISA SULKA IS IN HER THIRD TERM AS BLUFFTON'S MAYOR. HER STAFF SAYS HER LISTENING SKILLS ARE LEGEND, AND HER OPTIMISTIC PERSONALITY AND CAN-DO ATTITUDE HAVE LED TO HER SUCCESS.

lisa sulka

“Back then, Bluffton had one of everything — one grocery store, one bank, one police officer, and everyone knew him,” Sulka said. “And I was thrilled to be back in a small town.”

The Sulkas soon had another child, which made three kids in just over four years. And though she’d never considered a future in politics, Sulka became a familiar face around town and in 2002 then-mayor Emmett McCracken encouraged her to participate in the accommodations tax advisory committee. Oscar Frazier later encouraged her to run for Bluffton Town Council. She won.

She loved her work with the council, she said, but she also felt a tremendous amount of pressure. Bluffton was considering annexing property into the town, and she didn’t want to vote on something she didn’t know about — or know how her constituents felt. But as a real estate agent and mom, she was always out in the community, which offered plenty of opportunities to talk to residents.

“I was at the grocery store, I was at ballet, I was at my son’s football games,” she said. And she was approachable. “I love listening to people and talking to people, and getting a feel for their concerns. And I love representing them.”

When Sulka was elected mayor in 2008, it was the same year Barack Obama ran for president, and voter turnout set a record.

“Being elected mayor was scary because I knew everyone was looking,” she said. But Sulka’s parents raised her to be independent and confident. “I never had the feeling I was being placated because I had a seat at the table.”

Sulka’s work as mayor has been motivated by the desire to make Bluffton the kind of place that attracts young people and that offers opportunities. Now that her three children have grown up, she said she has more time to focus on her work as mayor and her career in real estate — two things, she said, that go hand-in-hand.

She also wants to encourage other women. Her advice: Don’t be afraid. Go beyond your comfort level. Do all the things you don’t think you can do.