Q&A with Bluffton town manager Marc Orlando

Marc Orlando has been at the forefront of a decade of enormous change in Bluffton. He joined the town as a planning director in 2004, moving into positions as director of growth management and deputy town manager before taking over for retiring town manager Anthony Barrett in September 2014.

We let the 44-year-old town leader reflect on a decade of growth and what’s ahead as the once “sleepy little hamlet” evolves into a metropolis.

Question: What are the town's priorities right now?

A: The town’s Strategic Plan guides the staff’s daily activities, and fiscal year 2016 priorities are detailed. I encourage everyone to glance through the document at http://www.townofbluffton.sc.gov/government/Documents/strategic.plan.pdf. The Strategic Plan’s guiding philosophy is to have thoughtful growth while preserving the town’s high quality of life, culture, history and spirit. That philosophy comes to life in our projects, such as preserving the Garvin House, the May River Road Streetscape and our capital improvements program, our Neighborhood Assistance program, and park improvements and creating memorable public spaces.

Q: There has been much talk of a Main Street atmosphere at the new Kroger Marketplace development at Buckwalter Place. Is the idea to make Buckwalter more of a downtown/town center?

A: The developers, Blanchard & Calhoun, approached town officials for our ideas, and town leaders are excited both parties want Buckwalter Place development to create a “sense of place.” We do that by incorporating walkable areas where people can work, live and play with parks and open spaces. Incorporating ways to “build a community” is as important as erecting buildings and very important to the culture of Bluffton.

Q: How do you balance the growth on Buckwalter with Old Town residents and merchants who feel that is the center of town?

A: The town balances this through its Growth Framework Map, which has identified areas in Bluffton best for growth in terms of space and protecting the town’s natural resources. This is the town’s guiding document, which balances growth within Bluffton. Town leaders strive daily to achieve a balance between new growth and preservation. This balance is what makes our town different from others; we offer the progressiveness and conveniences of a larger city while maintaining the charm of a small town.

In addition, there is growth in multiple places in Bluffton, not just Buckwalter and Old Town. In speaking about Bluffton’s growth, we must also mention the multiple neighborhoods that are populating the New River area; Hampton Lake is exploding with new construction; and Palmetto Bluff is in the middle of $250 million investment to Wilson Village (i.e. additions to hotel, etc.) as well as creating a new residential community called Moreland Village. 

Q: Do you feel the town has made progress in uniting Old Town and newer residents and developments into one Bluffton? How do you ultimately achieve that goal?

A: The Bluffton Historic District is and will always be the heart and soul of Bluffton. This district, which is on the National Historic Registry along with The Church of the Cross, is the town’s roots. Bluffton is like a very large extended family, and Old Town is where we gather to have festivals and gather at parks, like Oyster Factory Park and DuBois Park. It has been and will be our gathering place. 

As the town has grown, Old Town has added numerous offices, small businesses, retail shops, arts galleries and restaurants. However, Old Town will remain the place where our community comes together. The town has reinvested millions in this district to preserve this purpose.

For decades, Old Town has been where residents, recent and lifelong, gather for the Bluffton Village Festival, Bluffton Christmas Parade and, in the last decade, the Historic Bluffton Arts and Seafood Festival. These festivities are a type of homecoming for many, and Old Town is our home base.

Q: What’s the biggest challenges facing the town right now?

A: There are many. Smart growth, preserving the May River and the town’s natural resources, maintaining the town’s high quality of life, creating and maintaining different housing choices and price points

Maintaining Bluffton’s small-town charm while being one of the fastest growing municipalities in the nation;preparing infrastructure for future growth; preparing service delivery for the growth; realizing growth is inevitable and ensuring that comes with maintaining Bluffton’s “sense of place” and community pride.

Q: How do you balance increasing the profile of the town and still keep it as “the best kept secret” that seems to be part of its appeal for so many?

A: The recent downturn in the economy has taught all of us that it is impossible to predict five years or even 10 years from now. In 10 years, I am hopeful Bluffton’s spirit will be the same as it is today. 

Due to the town’s land use and financial policies, which are already in place, we know our population figures are on an upward trajectory. However, our policies and projects also indicate the town will plan for parks, festivals and open space to preserve our small-town charm and our sense of community.

Another big part of keeping our small-town feel is public safety. The Bluffton Police Department is a large part of our pride as its community-led policing philosophy has integrated officers in every facet of the town. In March, the Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies awarded the Bluffton Police Department Accreditation with Excellence, the highest level of recognition of the reaccreditation process. Our highly honored police force is a huge asset to Bluffton.

In addition, Bluffton has an overall philosophy about who we are and how we do things.  The Bluffton Covenant is a constant reminder of what we hold sacred, if we are mindful of those tenets, we will stay balanced.

Q: A year into the new job and increased duties, what’s the most important part of the job the public doesn’t see?

A: I have been fortunate to work with several town councils in Bluffton.  What the public doesn’t see is how dedicated our leaders are to this town.  While they may have differing opinions on various issues, I have never met a more dedicated group of elected officials who share the common ground of really wanting to do the right thing for the right reasons.

I also don’t think the public sees how hard council members work. We see the time and talent they invest as they attend multiple and time-consuming meetings, workshops and strategic planning sessions while attending to individual constituent needs.

Q: What do you see as the future for the Don Ryan Center for Innovation? How or when do we judge whether the center has been a success?

A: The Don Ryan Center for Innovation has been in operation for three years and we measure its success every day.  It has truly become a regional economic development initiative with the leadership provided by the town of Bluffton.  Many of the other business incubators around the state look to us for guidance and that, in itself, is a measure of success.

The bottom line of the center’s success is that its 19 current and graduated companies have added 77 employees to the region, generating more than $4 million in annual payroll.

We are also very proud of the center’s partnerships with the Savannah College of Art and Design and with the Beaufort County School District.  Innovation has to be nurtured at every age and skill level, and we are proud to be a player in this mission.

Q: There’s a lot of talk about Calhoun Street Promenade parking. What role can/will the town play in solving the evolving parking issues when the promenade is controlled by the private businesses?

A: The Old Town Master Plan envisioned a highly dense urban village and, as with many urban centers, parking is provided on the street.

The town has also surveyed the parking spaces in the Bluffton Historic District and found there are nearly 550 public spaces within a five-minute walk of Calhoun Street and the promenade.  We have to educate the public about where they are and encourage walkability.

Q: What’s the one question you get asked the most that you wish you could just hand out a business card with a canned response?

A: “Why is my hair getting so gray?”

And then there’s“Do I live in the town of Bluffton?”  While many share the Bluffton address, there are those who think they live in Bluffton but do not. For instance, Westbury Park, Woodbridge and Sandy Point are in the “donut holes” of the town; they weren’t annexed into the town’s jurisdiction. The simple answer is if you don’t pay taxes to the town of Bluffton, you aren’t a resident. However, we do have staff ready and able to explain the annexation process to you.

Q: What’s the biggest thing you learned in your first decade working for the town that will help you in your next 10 years?

A: I have been very lucky to work with different Town Councils whose members all believed in a vision for Bluffton. The council members had the foresight and they have provided the guiding documents and ordinances to create reality from that vision. They have not been afraid to lead and to take pride in setting the pace. Two examples of this leadership are the success of the Don Ryan Center for Innovation and Old Town. In mid-July, more than 100 mayors and municipal leaders from across the state toured the Bluffton Historic District and learned what worked here to create such an active business corridor and community gathering place. It was great to hear how other municipal leaders were energized with Bluffton’s ideas and implementation. I have learned a lot from Bluffton’s leadership.