By Lanier Laney
Matt and Laura McAlhaney met on a charity fundraising catamaran sail around Charleston Harbor nine years ago in July. It was love at first sight and they were married a year later.
Says Laura, “Everything is funny with my husband. I find him to be hilarious.”
Matt, whose parents are Ann McEachern Bulock and Henry T. McAlhaney, is a Beaufort native and University of South Carolina graduate. He has been in real estate sales and development in Beaufort for more than 20 years and hangs his license with Cora Bett Thomas.
Although born in Japan, Laura, whose maiden name is Mastrandrea, is of Italian heritage. She lived in Charleston after her father was stationed at the Charleston Naval Base as Supply Corp Captain in 1978. Her family later retired to Mt. Pleasant in 1988.
They have two adorable children — Cape, age 7, and Cecelia, age 6.
Both Matt and Laura love to travel, and each had done a lot of it before they met. They believed there was a need for a small, yet luxurious, modern boutique hotel in Beaufort’s downtown historic district. Matt, with Laura’s support, renovated and opened City Loft Hotel six years ago, at the bottom of the recession. But through hard work and a great staff, the hotel has turned into a real success story.
As a business partner, Laura opened and oversees City Java & News which has become a popular community hub while also welcoming guests to City Loft. City Java offers the best in espresso drinks, all types of great coffee, along with breakfast, lunch, pastries, wine, beer, print materials and wireless internet.
City Loft was voted best hotel in Beaufort from both The Island News and The Beaufort Gazette this year. On a larger stage, TripAdvisor (the world’s largest online travel website) has listed City Loft as the number one hotel in Beaufort since it opened, and has named it in the top 10 best small hotels in the United States two years running. While TripAdvisor no longer has the category, three years ago, City Loft was also in the top 10 for best service in the country in the company of luxury giants such as The St. Regis and The Four Seasons.
Says Matt, “I see my primary job as securing an excellent work force and providing a happy, fulfilling work environment as this translates into customer satisfaction — our single greatest priority. We have fun but we are very serious about our small space in the world of hospitality. My right hand woman at City Loft has been Stephanie Fairbanks, and without her and my excellent staff you would not be interviewing me — that is a certainty.”
“My husband is our leader and a great partner,” says Laura. She said the staff of City Java and City Loft “are an extension of my family and I’m really proud they choose to work with our organization. I love them all.”
Laura, besides creating and overseeing City Java, has been a teacher for the past 13 years in South Carolina public schools after receiving a graduate degree from the College of Charleston in teaching students with learning disabilities. Before that she studied Language and International Trade at Clemson University. Matt calls her “the combustion engine behind our family.”
Melesia Walden, the original headmaster at Bridges Preparatory School, and Laura wrote and received The Learning Center grant for a partnership with Bridges which allowed Laura to serve as the learning coach for the 2013-2014 school year.
Says Laura, “The Learning Center grant gave me a great opportunity to continue my work with the school after start up and utilize my years of teaching experience to serve the students and parents of Bridges. The position of learning coach allowed us an innovative way to maximize my experience in teaching and coaching students we identified as in need of assistance. To me, individualizing instruction is the most important study in education today, which is why partnerships like those supported through The Learning Center are so important.”
The Learning Center of Beaufort Inc., in partnership with The Coastal Communities Foundation, extends grants to nonprofit organizations looking to increase the success rate of any struggling learner in their population, be it during school or after school programming.
The Learning Center board selects which organizations will get funding based on their grant applications. For example, Penn Center and The Boys & Girls Club ran after-school tutoring programs for the 2013-14 school year, but other funded programs operated during the school day, which was the case at Bridges. The Learning Center is available to every child in Beaufort County at a variety of locations including Bridges, St. Peter’s Catholic School, Penn Center, AMIkids, Saint John Paul II Catholic High School, and soon Holy Trinity Classical Christian School. And, The Learning Center Fund works closely with the Beaufort County School District to identify children in need of assistance.
Matt says, “Laura is a rare find and a unique creation as she is beautiful, educated, energetic, and thoughtfully engaged in the world in which she lives. She cares for our children and me, she cares about the many students’ lives she has touched and works daily to make our businesses the best they can possibly be.”
Besides Laura’s involvement with The Learning Center, which is a 501c nonprofit, they both have been supportive of many charities in Beaufort. Matt has been involved with CODA for over 20 years and has coordinated golf tournaments and baseball charity events for the organization. He’s also served on the boards of Historic Beaufort Foundation, the Beaufort Regional Chamber of Commerce and TMAC.
Both Laura and Matt love Beaufort. Says Laura, “There are so many things to like about Beaufort. So many interesting people from around the world are exposed to Beaufort in some unique way, love it and long to come back. All of this provides Beaufort with a population of many fascinating people. I love people and their stories.”
Adds Matt, “For me, I love the friends and family that have gathered on this small island — so many have brought so much to the table of life.” Matt also loves what his friend Chris Conefry says about Beaufort: “It’s the backdrop for any Southern novel you may want to write.”
As for the future, Matt says, “I think it is unusual, and I am proud of the fact that my family and I live in the home in which my mother was raised; even better it is less than 200 yards from City Loft. I like to think we have created and continue to contribute a vital component to the economic engine of downtown Beaufort.” Adds Laura, “We believe a person’s work should touch the lives of others, always.”
To that end, they both would like to see City Loft Hotel and City Java & News brand grow and are exploring opportunities to make that happen.