As Wal-Mart recently posted its sixth straight quarter of declining in-store sales, and big box national retail chains are engaged in an all-out slugfest, the independent American retailers are seeing a growing customer base, and our communities’ historic downtowns are experiencing a true renaissance. This was evidenced by a strong showing during the 2014 Shop Small Saturday, which saw a 2.3 percent sales increase, bringing in a total of $14.3 billion on one day for locally-owned businesses.
“Small businesses are critical to the stability of our local communities, and growth of our national economy. We are confident that the broad national support for these businesses will continue well beyond November 29,” said Denise Pickett, President of American Express OPEN.
But this national trend is not just something happening in cities like Austin and Portland. South Carolina, too, is blossoming. Our former textile towns are reinventing themselves, and our lowcountry gems are hosting tourists and helping grow the next generation of entrepreneurs. Guided by the Main Street South Carolina program of the Municipal Association of South Carolina, 13 communities are using their Four-Point Approach™ to revitalization to create strong and sustainable economies, while preserving their historic character and sharing it with both locals and visitors.
One of the shining stars of the Main Street South Carolina program is Beaufort, a two-time semifinalist for the Great American Main Street Award, which has been racking up awards, accolades, and articles from the likes of Southern Living and National Geographic.
Nestled in Port Royal Sound and surrounded by tidal and barrier islands, Beaufort stands as the Queen of the Sea Islands—a title they have used for more than 100 years. Discovered in 1562 and chartered in 1711, Beaufort is the second oldest community in South Carolina, and proudly proclaims that “by the time Savannah was founded, Beaufort was old enough to drink.”
But much like other South Carolina towns, Beaufort hasn’t always been basking. In the 1970s, the vibrancy of today was absent. Customers had left their Historic Bay Street, and had taken their dollars with them. In 1979, under the vision of their mayor, Henry Chambers, Beaufort created an expansive waterfront park and breathed life back into their community. Shortly after, in 1985, Beaufort created Main Street Beaufort, USA, and joined the growing national movement lead by the National Trust for historic preservation. They focused on the design of the physical environment, the vitality of the business community, engagement of an active volunteer base, and programming events to bring the community to life.
Today, the Waterfront Park plays host to three signature events: The Beaufort Shrimp Festival, A Taste of Beaufort – Music, Arts & Seafood Festival, and The Beaufort Water Festival. These events bring thousands of visitors to the community, and create a vibrancy that helps to drive the economy.
The foot traffic created by the efforts of Main Street and other partner organizations have help to create a stunningly low two percent vacancy rate among retail space. Low Interest Loan Programs, Facade Grants, Awning Programs, and Free Public WiFi have helped to nearly double the workforce downtown to over 1,300.
Main Street Beaufort is constantly tapping into creative economic tactics to make the retail environment even more vital. In 2012, they launched a Main Street Dollars program, where they sold $15,000 in local retail gift certificates in just 18 minutes. With this kind of support system in place, it’s no wonder that the independent retailer is flocking to and thriving in Beaufort.
There is simply no wonder that Beaufort has played host to such films as Forrest Gump, Prince of Tides, and the Big Chill. The picturesque setting, the stunning architecture, and relaxed way of life, combined with the diverse economy driven by manufacturing, retail, and military make Beaufort, South Carolina an amazing community that is definitely worth exploring.