Bluffton, South Carolina: From Sleepy Small Town To Thriving High Tech Economy


As the “Heart of the Lowcountry,” Bluffton earns this distinction from a location that’s equidistant from Hilton Head’s Harbor Town, downtown Savannah and the Beaufort waterfront, making Bluffton a sought-after location for residents, tourists and businesses alike.

Until just a few years ago, Bluffton was considered by many to be a sleepy river-front town known more for its picturesque location on the May River than for its growing and thriving economic base. Today, Bluffton encompasses 54 square miles with 47 miles of riverfront and a population of 17,000 in town limits with another 18,000 in what town leaders call “greater Bluffton.” The town has been described as one of the Southeast’s fastest growing cities.

The evolution of the town from its sleepy roots to today’s thriving economy started in 1998 when Bluffton annexed the 20,662-acre Palmetto Bluff, expanding the town from one square mile to the state’s fifth largest municipality in land mass. In 2005, town council adopted the Old Town Master Plan, creating a blueprint to energize Old Town with infrastructure, entertainment options and new businesses.

The heart of Bluffton has long been its historic and walkable Old Town corridor. The Bluffton Historic District is on the national Historic Registry and is considered the central gathering place for town events and festivals. Lots of small businesses call home this one-mile-square downtown district that includes a variety of retail shops, art galleries, a weekly farmers market and restaurants frequented by both residents and tourists.

Town leaders point to the guiding philosophy of encouraging targeted growth while preserving the town’s unique quality of life, culture and history as the key to Bluffton’s success. Strategic long-range planning has helped town leaders stay focused not only on maintaining Bluffton’s small-town feel but also making the town ripe for entrepreneurs. The idea behind the master plan is to create a “sense of place” by incorporating walkable areas with parks and open spaces. This pulls people together and creates a sense of community rather than just a series of buildings.

Under the guiding principles of the plan, town leaders invested more than $6 million for infrastructure improvements. In turn, more than $60 million in private investment has been one of the numerous outcomes of the master plan.

After the recent recession, Bluffton leaders made economic development a priority with the desire to create a self-directed economy. In 2013, town council established two separate organizations which spearheaded the town’s economic development initiatives—the Don Ryan Center for Innovation and the Bluffton Public Development Corporation.

The Don Ryan Center is a partner with the Town of Bluffton and Clemson University Institute for Economic and Community Development. It is a technology business incubator, giving entrepreneurs and start-up companies the space and resources they need to get up and running. Entrepreneurs from the area and from around the country have found the Center to be an innovative and supportive launch pad for their fledgling companies.

In the three years since the Center opened, 24 companies that are either still part of the incubator or that have graduated have brought some 77 employees to the area, generating more than $4 million in annual payroll. Products out of these knowledge-based companies range from eco-friendly pest control to high-end web developers.

The Center is located in a magnet for high tech businesses, Buckwalter Place, a 94-acre mixed-use technology park. The vision for Buckwalter Place came together in the early 2000s, when the project’s developers and the Town of Bluffton envisioned a “village” design theme that would incorporate retail, residential, outdoor and entertainment elements.

Private investment by Buckwalter Place, coupled with public investment by the town, the state of South Carolina and the federal government, combined to make this technology park a success. The anchor tenant in Buckwalter Place is national headquarters for eviCore, a multi-million dollar company that provides medical benefit management.

In addition to this national headquarters and the Don Ryan Center, Buckwalter Place is also home to Town of Bluffton Law Enforcement Center, the Buckwalter Place Greenway Trail, Southern Barrel Brewing Company, retail stores and entertainment venues.

But it’s not just a thriving business climate in Bluffton that draws people to the area. Residential options in the town range from historic quaint cottages to new neighborhood communities to multi-million dollar homes.

Tourism is another important draw for the area. Together, the background beauty of the May River and charm of Old Town provide the foundation of Bluffton’s tourism appeal.

With the convenience of a larger city and the charm of a small town, Bluffton is perfectly situated for future success.