THE ISLAND PACKET
By Zach Murdock
Online Article Here
Blanchard & Calhoun Commercial will soon announce plans to build up to 300 new luxury apartments in the still-underdeveloped Hampton Lake area in Bluffton.
The planned complex will overlook the lake just off Bluffton Parkway and be the company's largest foray into residential development in Beaufort County.
But it's hardly Blanchard & Calhoun's first impression in Bluffton and Hilton Head Island, where the Augusta, Ga.-based group has become the new face of commercial redevelopment as the local real estate market shakes off the last dregs of a crippling recession.
After only about five years in the area, the company is literally reshaping the face of the southern half of the county with a series of multi-million dollar investments currently unmatched by any other developers.
Shelter Cove Towne Centre, the planned Buckwalter Place shopping center and the first new hotel to be built in the Coligny district in decades all fall within the company's expanding local footprint.
And Blanchard & Calhoun is just getting started here, executives say.
"The markets we're in, it's not like we stumbled into them," CEO Vic Mills said this week. "A number of years ago, during the depths of the recession, when we felt like things were turning around, we strategically identified areas throughout the Southeast that people wanted to live. It's as simple as that.
"Nothing we do is rocket science. It's just common sense," he said. "We go where the people want to go."
'HILTON HEAD 2.0'
Blanchard & Calhoun first burst onto Hilton Head six years ago with its plan to redevelop the old Shelter Cove Mall.
The company has been building mixed-use commercial and residential developments in Georgia, South Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia for 30 years, President Mark Senn said. It has become regular partners with Kroger and Marriott, whose properties often anchor its large projects and are integral parts of the company's local plans.
Over the years, projects have landed the company in Savannah and Charleston, but Mills and Senn have long wanted to invest on Hilton Head, where both have deep personal ties, they said.
Mills has been visiting since his honeymoon brought he and his wife to the old Seacrest Motel 44 years ago, he added.
"My wife always told me I'd have developments down here sooner or later, because you know when you're in the business you're always looking," Senn laughed.
Senn has been visiting the island since the late 1960s, when his mother worked for a construction company that built homes in Sea Pines Resort. He has owned a home there for 10 years, he said.
The company finally got its chance in 2011, when it crafted plans to buy the old Shelter Cove Mall with Kroger Co. and redevelop it into an open-air mall with a Kroger, waterfront park and luxury apartments, Senn said.
The largely vacant mall sorely needed re-investment and barely skirted foreclosure a year earlier.
Town leaders at the time wanted to work with the developers to revamp the dilapidated property.
The ensuing years of planning endured myriad protests from residents and some leaders who argued against the center's plans to cut down trees, its large parking lots and its retail focus.
Since the Kroger at the center opened in late 2013, the mall has filled in with more than a dozen new shops and restaurants, and its final retail building is now being planned. The waterfront park overlooking Broad Creek behind the mall has become a go-to spot for families and visitors with its weekly events and popular playground.
In March, the center was named the S.C. Municipal Association's economic development project of year, and town leaders tout it as a prime example of island redevelopment.
Now the company is working with the town to revise its plans to build more than 200 high-end apartments on the property.
"The island was always the place to be on the East Coast, and then it slid over the years because there was not much growth allowed, and you can't do that," Senn said. "You've got to go forward or backward.
"Whether people are ready for it not on the island, Hilton Head needs to become Hilton Head 2.0," he continued.
"It needs a new version."
The timing is right on Hilton Head and in Bluffton for new investment, and Blanchard & Calhoun is out in front of what should be a wave of such work in the area over the next 10-to-20 years, leaders say.
The population of greater Bluffton has ballooned over the past decade and the heartbeat of the island -- its summer tourism season -- is getting stronger with increasing occupancy rates, higher average hotel room rates and growing numbers of day-trip guests, said David Ames, a long-time developer and island leader.
"Every large commercial property is feeling the opportunity and perhaps the competitive need to invest right now," Ames said. "I think these private investments are sort of self-reinforcing -- one leads to another."
Blanchard & Calhoun's work is likely just the first in new investment into the island's aging commercial and office properties thanks in part to the town's recent rewrite of its land management rules, which loosened a stranglehold on development across the island, they said. Additionally, Town Council is focusing on developing long-term plans, Ames said.
Those new rules allowed the company to craft a plan to bring a Marriott Residence Inn to Heritage Plaza along Pope Avenue, for example, Mills and Senn said. Such a project wouldn't have been allowed under the old regulations but fills a market need for a mid-level hotel in the heart of the island's tourism district, they added.
In Bluffton, the active retiree community is resurging after the downturn and the company wants to be on the front end of what it sees as a new development boom. That boom will bring a series of new shopping centers along U.S. 278 and Bluffton Parkway in the next few years, Mills said.
The company's plans for a Shelter Cove-style shopping center at Buckwalter and the new apartments in Hampton Lake get its foot in the door ahead of the competition, he said.
"Frankly, we look at a lot of rocks before we find a nugget," Mills said. "There are still a lot of nuggets around (Bluffton and Hilton Head), and we hope we'll be fortunate to find them and continue to develop there."
For now, Blanchard & Calhoun will remain the face of redevelopment in southern Beaufort County.
While companies such as Jaz 278 -- which is developing shopping centers at Bluffton Gateway and the Grayco property along U.S. 278 -- are also working in the area, it is Blanchard & Calhoun projects that dominate locally in size and scope.
That makes them a target for those who don't support what they see as a too drastic change in the area, particularly on Hilton Head.
But the company's approach also makes it just what many Bluffton and Hilton Head leaders say they want -- modern development that expands the economic and tax base.
"There are a lot of people who don't want anyone else to move to Hilton Head. You just have to ignore that," said Mills. "Almost anyone can see that we have an opportunity to make this better. If you can take it to a whole new level, it's not only going to be better, it's going to be something very special."