Keeping the ‘State of Mind’ Working

People

Shellie WestShellie West, founder and CEO of the Greater Bluffton Chamber of Commerce, helped put Bluffton on the map for businesses.

If there’s one thing you can say about Greater Bluffton Chamber of Commerce founder Shellie West, it is this: she has vision. She first thought of creating something akin to the chamber 17 years ago.

Those of you who were in Bluffton 17 years ago, raise your hands. We’re willing to bet there aren’t that many of you. So we should let most of you know: the Bluffton of 2000 was nothing like the Bluffton of 2017.

No Calhoun Street Promenade. No Bluffton Parkway. Just miles and miles of potential. And that’s exactly what West saw.

“We were in an upswing at that time because of Sun City,” said West in her sweet tea and sunshine Southern accent, the product of a Bluffton upbringing. “We could see what was happening.”

Her plans for a chamber were ahead of their time, but would take a few years to reach fruition. In the interim, West put her considerable business acumen into helping out with her father’s construction business.

It was then that she saw the tremendous need home-based businesses had for professional meeting space.

“I saw what he was spending on going out to meet with clients,” she said. “When you work from home, you have pets, you have kids … you need a place to meet that’s a little more professional than home.”

From there, West had a plan. She just needed the opportunity. It came by way of an unused commercial space her father’s company had built on Goethe Road. After finishing it up, West decided to utilize the space as a member-based business center with the basic services most home-based business lack: a mail room, client meeting space and a quiet place to organize thoughts outside the chaos of home.

She called it the Bluffton Business Club, and right away its mission expanded well beyond a simple office space. Local firms started partnering with her on regular meet-ups — coffee socials, networking events, etc. What started as a simple place to get some paperwork done was swiftly becoming a hub for Bluffton’s many small businesses.

“Eventually, I had people saying, ‘You know, this is kind of like a chamber. So why don’t you just make it a chamber?’ ” West said.

Thus began a quest to develop a business plan and transform the Bluffton Business Club into the Greater Bluffton Chamber of Commerce. As she put it, “it takes a community to support a chamber,” so West called in business leaders and several mentors to narrow in on what exactly Bluffton needed from its chamber.

“We never set out to compete with anybody,” she said. “We saw a need that wasn’t being met. The community wanted it, the business wanted it. The support was there.”

And it was there in force, as West found out shortly after securing her first 25 charter members in early 2012. “Within three weeks, we had 150 member businesses. And we weren’t even releasing information or issuing press releases,” she said. A grand opening party sponsored by Beacon Insurance, Benchmark Fitness and Atlantic Community Bank welcomed nearly 400 guests.

With the business community on board, West never looked back. The Greater Bluffton Chamber of Commerce grew by leaps and bounds in the ensuing years, expanding to include events like Taste of Bluffton and The Boiled Peanut Festival — home of the world’s largest boiled peanut, because nothing less would be expected of Bluffton.

And, of course, the regular networking events and coffee meetings from the early days of the Bluffton Business Club continue. There are just a few more people in attendance. “We are still developing, but we’re hovering around 500 member businesses right now, representing a few thousand people,” West said. “It’s been phenomenal how people have gotten behind us.”

Of course, the growth of the Bluffton chamber echoes the growth of Bluffton itself. For years, the chamber offices sat alone toward the south end of Goethe Road, a gorgeous stucco and wrought iron outpost between a forest and the fields of an abandoned mixed-use business center. Today, it fronts a massive cluster of townhomes just steps from a downtown area that officially qualifies as “bustling.”

And for West, who grew up knowing every boat that passed by on the May River and only dialing four digits to make a call within Bluffton, this growth is the rising tide that lifts all ships.

“A lot of people have come here, but they’ve bought into the Lowcountry way of life,” she said. “They’ve all meshed into what Bluffton is, and that’s that state of mind.”

For more information on the Greater Bluffton Chamber of Commerce, go to www.blufftonchamberofcommerce.org.