— A showpiece of distinctive arts and crafts, the South Carolina Artisans Center here owes its existence to the vision of three local women determined to boost the city’s downtown profile.

The concept originated with Walterboro’s then-Chamber of Commerce director Denise Butler; Mary Hunt, head of downtown development; and Carol Mullis, who worked for the S.C. Department of Parks, Recreation & Tourism Commission, says Gale Doggett, executive director of the center.

“Downtown Walterboro was dying, and they started brainstorming. All had a love of the arts and had visited similar centers in other parts of the country. They wanted to do it in town, rather than just off I-95 as first suggested, in order to boost the local economy. It all came together in 1994.”

Today, on the cusp of its 20th anniversary, the state’s official folk art and craft gallery rivals such renowned venues as Tamarack in West Virginia and the Southern Highlands Craft Guild center of North Carolina.

At any given time, the SCAC exhibits work by more than 270 artists in the fields of painting, sculpture, basketry, wood carving, weaving, jewelry, blown glass, pottery and photography — all of it is for sale.

But the center is not an isolated gallery. Rather, it’s part a grouping of historic buildings, which also houses the Colleton County Arts Council.

The stated goal of the center, which also plays a key role in the seventh annual Walterboro Antiques, History and Arts Festival opening Friday, is to “interpret, market, preserve, and perpetuate the folk art and fine craftsmanship of South Carolina Artisans while creating a better understanding of our rich and diverse cultural heritage.”

“Walterboro’s largest industry is tourism now, so it worked,” says Doggett. “The Artisans Center is not the only reason people come but it was a catalyst. As many as 18,000 people a year visit just for the center but now we have this antiques district with as many as 15 stores. Business breeds business. People are not going to come in from I-95 for one antiques store or one small arts gallery.”

Doggett says that in many respects the SCAC houses 270 separate small businesses, providing vital marketing for individual artists.

“I can’t think of any medium that is not represented. Some are master artists and some are less experienced, but few have the ability to market their work to as many people as they do here. Small businesses can’t do that on their own, but we can secure grants that help us do it for them.”

A nonprofit, the SCAC and its six-person staff are funded by commissions from sales, grants from S.C. Arts Commission and PRT, local taxes, fundraising and partnerships.

The latest foray in promoting Walterboro, aka “The Front Porch of the Lowcountry,” is the annual Antiques, History and Arts Festival, which also goes by the sobriquet “Walterboro Rocks!” as in rocking chairs, an antique staple.

“The idea was to bring a new, fresh look to Walterboro instead of just another crafts festival,” says David Evans of Bachelor Hill Antiques, who, with the late Bud Price, past president of the Walterboro Historical Society, was a key player in starting the festival.

“The merchants, the Historical Society and the Artisans Center got together and decided we were going to use our collective power to put together something that more defined the direction in which Walterboro was headed.”

That direction was as an antiques mecca, especially for those passing by on the I-95 corridor.

“Seven years ago, we probably had six or seven antiques stores and now we’re up to 15 with a bunch of restaurants,” says Evans. “None of us had any experience starting and running a festival, so we started very small, with about six vendors.”

The Colleton County History Museum and Farmer’s Market also has become very involved the past few years, thanks to Executive Director Gary Brightwell.

“But we’re still in our infancy as a festival and need to find our level. We don’t want to ‘over-slick’ this. Walterboro has a Mayberry quality we want to sustain. That’s the kind of feeling we wanted this festival to have.”