August 2020

Bill Herbkersman: The Pied Piper of the Promenade

Author: Tim Wood | Photographer: M.KAT Photography

He may not be a born-there native, but the core visionaries behind Bluffton’s last quarter century of economic growth inevitably bring up one person: Bill Herbkersman. Many newer residents know the 62-year-old fixture of Old Town Bluffton as the longtime S.C. House Representative for District 118, which covers Bluffton and parts of Hardeeville. But those around for the early-2000s growth that created the foundation for the town’s financial boom know that Herbkersman is the brains for what has become Bluffton’s town center, The Promenade.

“It was an idea, a dream. I have always been the guy who wants to identify a need and fill it,” Herbkersman said of the birth of The Promenade. “That’s how I was raised—to dream, but to go further than the dream, to find the way to turn the dream into a plan and a reality. But I’ve always been that doer. I remember having high school friends who were moving into an apartment, and they said it was going to take them six weeks to get it clean. I was the guy who cleaned it in two days. There’s always a different, more efficient way to get that dream achieved.”

Those who have seen first-hand how Herbkersman executes a plan say it’s a marvel to watch and be part of. “The guy is a doer; he just doesn’t take no for an answer when he knows there is a yes,” said longtime friend and restauranteur Ted Huffman. “He’s a force, a machine and just a positive-outcome guy—has been since the day I met him.”

Herbkersman was the 1.0 version of the now-cliched Ohio transplant: a debonair son of the Cleveland suburb of Bedford who headed south for college at the University of South Carolina. Herbkersman migrated to Hilton Head during summer breaks to lifeguard and bartend, but he didn’t come to the island for an easy-going academic break. He said he had a plan almost from day one.

“It’s when the entrepreneurial bug really kicked into high gear. There was opportunity all around me; it was crazy,” he said. “I looked around and said there are all these resorts and tourists, and they need a better way of getting around than cars.”

After college, he put his USC business classes to immediate use by starting a bike rental business on Archer Road. The shop sold bikes, but more important, rented bikes to resorts and villas all around the island—one of the first companies to offer such a service.

“I mean, we were doing 1,000 bikes a week in rentals. I was always buying, always repairing; it was a new craze that just took off,” Herbkersman said. He opened his first retail location in the old Pineland Station mall at the beginning of the mountain bike era. “We were the first in the area to have this new kind of bike, and people couldn’t get enough of them.”

That one island store rapidly turned into 15 locations from Savannah to Florence and Greenville. He turned a personal dream of flying into a pilot’s license, the perfect way to shrink the geographical divide in visiting all his stores.

“Some more buttoned-up types didn’t get the whole bike thing—thought it was a fad or a nice little side hustle,” he said, remembering one such “suit” who scoffed at the business. “I bartended and worked the door at a place called W.G. Shuckers. A lady friend brought in a guy that she’d married. He was a VP of a bank and kind of looked down on me when I brought up the bikes.”

A few years later, as he prepared to sell all 15 stores, he was in Columbia to finalize the deal and set up the wiring of the money. He went to a bank looking for a manager, and out walked the very VP from the bar.
“He wasn’t looking down on me anymore once he did that transaction for me, I’ll tell you that,” Herbkersman said with a tiny smirk and awkward laugh of a dude not one for bragging.

From there, Herbkersman seized on another opportunity close to his heart. W.G. Shuckers went bankrupt, so he turned his bike profits into funds to buy the restaurant and move the operation to Palmetto Bay Marina.
“At first, we were real nervous. I loved restaurants but had never run one,” he said. “But I saw some inefficiencies and some opportunities. It was slow and scary, but we did all-you-can-eat crabs and crab races and created a fun atmosphere that won folks over quickly.”

By the early ’90s, now married and starting a family, the budding Lowcountry entrepreneur opened Hilton Head Brewing Company with similar locations in St. Simon’s Island, Ga. and Columbia, S.C. Then he opened the Dog’s Breath Saloon on S.C. 46 in Bluffton, his first extended exposure to off-island life that changed his business focus to across the bridge.

“I always had that bug in my head of ‘what’s next,’ and I could see from the first time we spent any time here that this little corridor was next,” he said. “For me, restaurants were part of my dream but not the endgame. It’s a grind I loved, but I could not live on that rollercoaster forever.”

Herbkersman had gently gotten his feet wet in real estate development while opening a W.G. Shuckers in Jacksonville, and by the early 2000s, parlayed lessons learned there into what he was selling to Bluffton locals as The Promenade.

“At the time, we had just ended the caboose barbecue business we’d run in Old Town, and Bill showed us this legal pad with a drawing of what he envisioned as Restaurant Row on The Promenade,” said Huffman, who would buy into the concept and open a brick-and-mortar location of Bluffton BBQ with his wife Donna that anchors Restaurant Row today.

“The Promenade was one of the first projects for our historic preservation commission to approve. It was pre-recession, and contentious at times on both sides, but he continued to work with this group as he knew how important this would be in the bigger picture of our ‘old town,’” Bluffton Mayor Lisa Sulka said. “Once the recession hit, he had to come back and redraw his plans and really presented a much cooler layout of buildings. He was the first to do the underground water infiltration system, which showed his love for our rivers and the environment. After this project was underway, it allowed the town to start a capital projects list to upgrade our amenities.”

Herbkersman admits that it wasn’t an easy sell at first, especially to the longtime residents of Calhoun Street and the surrounding area around the Promenade land. “I understood it. I’ve lived on May River Road forever. I don’t want to see our slice of heaven ruined; that was never my intention. We needed a center, a place we could be proud of and build this emerging identity of the town from. That’s what I was selling,” he said. “Was everyone buying? Metaphorically and literally, no at first.”

Places like Bluffton BBQ, Captain Woody’s, The Gate House, and Cork’s were the initial anchors and rode it out at the worst of the ensuing recession. Much of the mixed-use buildings already constructed sat vacant during the late 2000s, alongside a good chunk of undeveloped land.

Herbkersman sold off small parcels of the project to stay afloat and, when his Florida financiers were ready to cut bait, turned to Monty Laffitte and Palmetto State Bank to be a local partner and a financial life preserver.
“I mean, I can’t say enough about Monty and the bank, about Ted and the Captain Woody’s crew, all the original folks who rode it out—believed in what this could be,” he said. “As we came out of the recession, The Promenade led the way.”

By 2012, every plot, every building was filled, and vacancies have been a rarity ever since. The Promenade is thriving, as dreamers like Josh Cooke at Corner Perk have bet big and won big on the property.
“I love to see the next crop of dreamers winning and will do whatever I can to help them to that reality,” Herbkersman said.

Herbkersman has represented the area in the State House since 2002, fighting passionately for small businesses, education funding and most recently, monies to fund better resources for mental health and senior dementia issues.

“He has brought the attention of our town to Columbia, whether it’s the dock at the end of Calhoun Street, the Oyster Factory park, our May River Road streetscape. Those are all projects that brought more than 10 times in private development compared to what we paid,” Sulka said.

For every project Herbkersman is the public face of, friends say there are 10 more projects or pay-it-forward actions he does for others. He has been flying relief missions for three decades to Florida, the Bahamas and Puerto Rico, transporting organs and humans in need of transplants and much-needed supplies when emergencies hit. Most recently, he was one of the first to fly into The Bahamas’ Abacos Islands after Hurricane Dorian devastated the region in September 2019.

“It started as just trying to do whatever I could to help. I flew in, asked a friend I’d met what’s needed, and he noticed I was scratching my eyes. He told me the island was ravaged by pink eye and gave me some polymyxin eye drops,” Herbkersman said of the trip. “I got back to South Carolina and started asking around. MUSC delivered a pallet of polymyxin the next day. The whole Lowcountry wanted to help. Friends were bringing clothes, gas cards I gave to other relief pilots and what ended up being 22 tons of supplies over multiple trips. It was just incredible, the power of this area and the heart of the people.”

Herbkersman sees the same heart as he sees folks trying to figure out the best way forward during the pandemic. He is working on COVID-19 relief efforts locally and in the State House, as well as continuing to work on what’s next for the area.

“We’re working on some workforce housing projects now to support the 700-plus jobs that we’ve helped bring to the area. It’s a vital need, starter housing for the next wave of Bluffton families,” he said.

Folks like Huffman marvel at Herbkersman’s tireless efforts and seem-ingly endless energy reserves and resolve. “We weathered a lot of storms together and stuck to our guns,” Huffman said. “He’s a pioneer.”

“I don’t know about all that, but I believe if there’s a need, and you know you can fill it, you should,” Herbkersman said. “From there and working off that motivation, good things will always happen.” 

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