The Birth of Greater Bluffton's Chamber of Commerce
Author: Debbie Szpanka
Back in the mid-1800s, a group of Bluffton men sat underneath an oak tree and plotted to protest Federal taxes on the goods they imported. From there, the secessionist movement was born, making South Carolina the first state in the Union to succeed. The theme of protecting and promoting the interests of Bluffton businesses came alive under what is known as the “Secession Oak,” and that espirit de corps which starts with Bluffton’s renowned “state of mind,” still lives on.
Today, the facts are different, yet the spirit is the same. While the new leaders of the Greater Bluffton Chamber of Commerce insist that developing a chamber for Bluffton businesses is not a “secession” from the Hilton Head Island-Bluffton Chamber of Commerce, they say that establishing a separate chamber is about being fierce promoters and protectors of the local economy within the quirky borders of this artsy, coastal town.
“We are about representing Bluffton’s businesses,” said Shellie West Hodges, the newly appointed executive director. “Forming the Chamber is not about what the Hilton Head Island-Bluffton Chamber of Commerce is or is not doing; we want to work side by side, and we hope to enhance each other’s efforts. Forming a separate organization is about Bluffton business owners finding and forming their own voice and having a hand in economic development of our town. “We want to give Bluffton a face and voice without a dash in the name.”
The concept of a Bluffton Chamber, initiated by Hodges in January, has strongly resonated throughout the community. Ken Groff, co-owner of Beacon Insurance, suggested that his business and two of his business neighbors, Atlantic Community Bank and Benchmark Fitness Center, sponsor an outside party for their clients in Sheridan Business Park where they are located.
“This concept morphed into a full-blown kickoff party for the Greater Bluffton Chamber of Commerce,” Groff said. “Several businesses donated food and beverages and hundreds of people showed up. It’s amazing, because the Chamber doesn’t have a lot to offer its members right now since it’s still evolving. However, it offers businesses an opportunity for an identity and a voice and a chance to do this from the ground floor of this organization. It’s fun and exciting to see the Chamber come together so quickly, because people believe in Bluffton. Due to our strong community spirit, people want to lock arms together and go out as one.”
Megan Baker, chairman of the Chamber’s events committee, concurs. “Since the April 26 kickoff event was our debut, we didn’t know how many people would come. We expected about 100. I think there were upwards of 400 people there. This tells me people are excited about the prospects of what’s to come from the Bluffton Chamber.”
Two weeks after the kickoff, members of Greater Bluffton Chamber of Commerce were celebrating its first ribbon cutting for a new business, which is steeped in Bluffton history. Adam Simoneaux watched as his wife, Lyndee, used oversized scissors to cut the red ribbon in half, which was tied across the parking lot of Scott’s Market in the historic downtown district. The couple then welcomed their neighbors and business associates into their family’s butcher shop, which was formerly owned by Adam’s uncle and grandfather.
“This shop has been in my family and in this community for 47 years,” Simoneaux said. “I am honored to be one thread of the Bluffton fabric that has woven its way through the generations. My store and the beginning of Bluffton’s Chamber represent a step into the next chapter of this story.”
Simoneaux said his store, which opened before he was born, represents how tradition and progress are now a part of Bluffton’s culture. “The Chamber can help the older businesses and the newer ones come together as one,” he said. “As business owners, we are a part of a team, part of a bigger picture which leads to a greater community and a greater sum. The Chamber is the organization which can band us together and put its hand on the wheel and help us collectively steer in one direction, while individually steering us to more customers, relationships and business.”
According to Hodges, the focus of the Greater Bluffton Chamber of Commerce is cultivating small businesses—helping them prosper, increase job opportunities and encourage orderly economic development and stability. And a diverse board is the first step for inclusiveness. “We want to reach out to those who work from home, non-profits, small businesses and larger businesses. We want the established business representatives to mix with newcomers and share ideas about marketing and partnerships,” he said.
One idea that the Chamber has initiated is sponsoring “cash mob” events. The first one was held in mid-May at Kinfolks Gullah Grubs & Seafood, located in the Sheridan Business Park.
“It happened at a great time of need,” said Gwendolyn Green, co-owner of the restaurant. “May was a slow month, and this event was a wonderful kick-start. It really did good for my business; I have seen many of the people who were there for the event come back with their families.”
And that’s exactly the intent of a “cash mob” event: introducing the business community to new businesses and helping each out with marketing and exposure.
Green, who owns the restaurant with her husband Lonnie, was honored to be the first recipient of the Chamber “cash mob,” and she views the event as a part of drawing people closer. “This community is already close, and I think the Chamber and its events can also bridge the gaps between our town’s businesses, schools and families,” she said.
“The Hilton Head Island-Bluffton Chamber of Commerce continues to do a terrific job marketing the entire region and bringing in tourists with local, regional and national exposure,” Hodges said. “This Chamber is more of a vehicle to unite the economic engines of our town.”
Simoneaux echoed this sentiment. “The secret is out about Bluffton,” he said. “The big guys will come. It’s time the little guys band together.”