Originally created 12/15/03

Businesses look for niche in Gullah community



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By OMAR FORD The (Beaufort) Gazette

BEAUFORT, S.C. -- At first glance, The Corners community on St. Helena Island looks like a winning recipe for small businesses. Each year, thousands of tourists drive the two-lane, milelong stretch to Penn Center and Hunting Island State Park.

But some Corners business owners say it's not easy to carve out a niche and run a successful business here.

The strip once referred to as downtown St. Helena has at least three businesses that have closed this year, leaving a dozen or so others to contend. Recently, Ultimate Eating and No Pork Cafe have been replaced by the Sea Island Cafe and The Rhett Gallery.

The buildings remain the same, but the occupants constantly change.

Without stronger community support, more resources and clearer direction, the businesses are doomed to fail in this venue.

"I don't know if (the community) actually realizes the absolute need for their support of these small businesses," said Veronica Gerald, former director of history and culture at Penn Center.

Whenever a family passes by the Sea Island Cafe to have a Sunday meal at Golden Corral in Beaufort, that hurts and the impact of those dollars lost is felt, she added.

In her tenure with Penn Center, Gerald would refer tour buses that came to the historic site to eat at St. Helena Island restaurants. "The owners would tell me, 'Thank you. I just made payroll because of that,' " Gerald said.

Soliciting community support was a move Mary Mack made immediately when she took over Red Piano Art Gallery Too in July. By August she had invited her church, Faith Memorial Baptist, to the gallery's open house.

"They might not have all come to the open house, but they kept coming to the gallery after then," she said.

If businesses want to survive they have to really stir up community involvement, said Larry Holman, president of the Beaufort County Black Chamber of Commerce. "When it comes to recycling the dollars in the community, we just don't have enough of that." he said.

Sea Islands businesses have strong ties to the Gullah culture, and on St. Helena, business owners are looking to cash in on this treasure.

Gullah people occupied the Lowcountry along the Southeastern coast from the Cape Fear River in North Carolina to the St. John's River in northern Florida.

They are a distinct group of people, who are descendants of enslaved Africans from the west and central agricultural regions of Africa.

Many of their traditions are practiced today.

Stores in the Corners community carry many different foods and arts and crafts derived from the culture.

In 1991, Kitty Green and her husband started the Gullah House Restaurant in the Corners community, starting the trend of Gullah businesses, she said.

Green said back then, Gullah was just becoming popular and people hadn't fully tapped into the culture's marketing capabilities.

The Gullah House was an "upscale restaurant," she said.

The business was expanded to downtown Beaufort where as many as 50 employees were on the payroll. But Green moved too fast, she said, and was forced close in 1997.

The Gullah trend, however, had begun. The Gullah Grub and the Gullah Welcome Center emerged with the impetus of promoting Gullah culture and others followed suit.

The Greater Beaufort Chamber of Commerce has produced a brochure spotlighting the businesses and attractions on St. Helena, said Libby Barnes, chamber president.

If the businesses want to succeed, Green said there needs to be more collaboration between businesses and the community. Resturants need to refer customers to art galleries, galleries need to refer tourists to historic attractions, and so on.

Now Green runs Gullah Geechee Mahn Tours, which works with many restaurants inside and outside the Corners community. "A business could work," Green said. "It'll take a lot of marketing, a strong voice in the chamber and a lot of hard work."