Main Street Beaufort – Looking back, looking forward
In 1985, downtown Beaufort’s commercial corridor was on the endangered list, with vacant storefronts, dilapidated buildings, little coordination among the merchants and the anchor tenant, a Belk department store, about to relocate to a shopping center three miles away.
Fast forward to 2022 and downtown Beaufort not only is thriving, but attracts attention regularly from national media for its beauty, appealing mix of restaurants and shops – most of them locally-owned – and tremendous pride among the merchants. The commercial buildings have been renovated and regularly are repainted and awnings replaced.
The nationally-recognized Henry C. Chambers Waterfront Park creates a peaceful passive park with bench swings overlooking the Intracoastal Waterway and marina. A carefully-restored clock tower at the entrance to the park has created an iconic meeting place for people rendezvousing downtown – “we’ll meet you at the clock.”
All that change didn’t happen by accident.
In 1985, a group of downtown Beaufort merchants, property owners, city leaders and Historic Beaufort Foundation introduced the Main Street program to Beaufort. The program brings leadership, direction, preservation expertise and marketing help to small, historic and struggling downtown communities, such as Beaufort in the mid-1980s.
“Downtown might not have been dying, but it was certainly not as well as it could have been,” David Taub, Beaufort’s mayor in 1985, said in a 10-year retrospective. “We can thank the Main Street program for coming in and breathing new life into our downtown.”
Interestingly, Lise Sundrla, HBF’s assistant director, came to Beaufort in 1987 to lead Main Street Beaufort after a similar post in Gaffney, SC.
“Beaufort’s core commercial district certainly has seen ups and downs over the decades, but a cornerstone of all the successes has been this community’s dedication to working together and preserving historic structures while finding ways to re-energize what happens inside these historic storefronts and houses,” Sundrla said.
Since its inception in Beaufort, the Main Street program grew, flourished, cut back, changed focus and eventually morphed into several different elements to promote downtown Beaufort as a shopping and dining destination.
Cynthia Cole Jenkins, executive director of Historic Beaufort Foundation and who helped shape the group’s preservation work in the 1980s and ‘90s, points to the critical importance of Bay Street in downtown’s past – and future.
“Bay Street has been the heart of Beaufort through three centuries and for much of that time John Mark Verdier’s house has stood on a pivotal corner,” she said. “John Verdier was a merchant who faced financial ups and downs and built a remarkable example of Federal Period architecture that remained in the hands of his family for 144 years.
“Historic Beaufort Foundation was instrumental in resurrecting Bay Street when in the 1960s it committed to restoring such a major structure in the heart of downtown. As stewards of Mr. Verdier’s house for 70 years, we understand the benefit of historic preservation in Beaufort’s commercial core,” she noted.
Today, downtown Beaufort’s core commercial district faces challenges similar to some from the 1980s and ‘90s:
Continued expansion of retail development, including big box shopping, along Boundary Street, Robert Smalls Parkway and across from Cross Creek Shopping Center
Commercial and residential development at Whitehall and Lady’s Island, directly across from the historic district
Renewed conversations about the need for a new bridge that could bypass downtown.
Today, as 30 years ago, Main Street Beaufort can provide solutions. A key is bringing together businesses, community, civic and city leaders to strengthen downtown Beaufort.
Kevin Cuppia, co-owner of Modern Jewelers, a fixture on Bay Street since 1947, saw the challenges of the 1980s and was among the merchants who embraced the Main Street Beaufort concept.
“Having a coordinated approach to preserving the historic storefronts and encouraging businesses that could compliment and thrive made great sense, and then the work to consistently present the downtown district as a desirable, attractive place to shop and eat helped put us back on the map,” Cuppia said.
“We are proud to have been one of the early supporters and partners of Main Street in the 1980s and ‘90s and we still keep those concepts in mind when I meet with other downtown merchants,” he said.
Today’s conversations include preserving historic properties while upgrading essential infrastructure such as drainage, electrical and Internet service, and providing a coordinated approach to marketing and promotions while encouraging and supporting businesses that fit the authentic sense of Beaufort.
“Working together, we can focus on building an even stronger economic engine in downtown Beaufort while preserving and enhancing the historic experience,” Sundrla said.