Standing amid a pile of renovation materials in a Myrtle Beach building, Hector Melendez hopes he's seeing the future through the haze of dust hanging in the humid air.
That immediate future includes a chic bar with VIP seating, a dance floor and a cafe. Next year comes the rooftop bar and restaurant with secluded balconies for dining and an unobstructed view of the ocean.
Melendez plans to open his new bar/nightclub/cafe in July in the heart of Myrtle Beach.
But where is that, exactly?
That's the question city leaders, business owners and boosters aim to finally answer with a two-pronged renewal plan designed to make the area that has borne a litany of labels into an attractive destination for locals and visitors. If you are among those unfamiliar with the district that, depending on the decade, has been branded as Broadway, Five-Points, or the Superblock, you're in good company. Visitors and locals alike pass right by - or even through - the district and never notice.
"It's neither here nor there," planning Commissioner Fred Akel said.
But Akel and the planning commission's Downtown Subcommittee want to change that by creating what in planning parlance are known as overlay districts that, if approved, would give the merchants along and around Broadway between Ninth Avenue North and Withers Swash more freedoms to create an eye-catching, pedestrian-friendly Main Street district.
The subcommittee, made up of merchants, property owners and city planning commissioners, wants downtown Myrtle Beach to be the hot new destination for food, music, arts and entertainment, and is asking the city to go along with a plan that includes allowing sidewalk signage and outdoor displays, sidewalk cafes, specific building design guidelines and more.
"What's needed is a vision," Akel said.
City's oldest district
The Superblock stands right across Kings Highway from the former Pavilion site dates back to the city's birth, said city Manager Tom Leath.
Myrtle Beach was first incorporated as a town in 1938 and became a city when the population topped 5,000 in 1957. In those days, downtown was the place where the residents went for groceries, pharmacy needs, dry cleaning and more.
But as tourism took hold and spurred a population boom, people moved farther away from downtown and began patronizing the newer strip malls and shopping centers nearer their homes. It's a theme familiar to towns and cities across the country and many have redesigned their downtowns to keep them alive.
Few face the kind of competition Myrtle Beach has within its own borders. Downtown has to compete with areas like Broadway at the Beach, Coastal Grand Mall and The Market Common, where people go for movies, bars, restaurants and entertainment.
Leath said part of the problem is the way the S.C. Department of Transportation configured the area, with Main Street becoming basically a traffic chute that sends people past the Superblock and onto U.S. 501 with no stoplight.
"They never get a chance to see what's down there," he said. He said the chute also discourages people from parallel parking along Main Street because of the traffic. So they don't see the Ethiopian restaurant across from Melendez's new place. Or the art gallery. Or the eclectic Sun Cafe.
Over the years, storefronts changed quickly as one business after another tried its hand there and found no market. Street Reach's homeless shelter used to be there. There are storefront churches next to lawyers' offices, eclectic restaurants near drug-treatment centers, art galleries, gift shops, cafes, printers and watch repair stores.
The desire to rejuvenate downtown Myrtle Beach is nothing new. Numerous studies have been conducted and plans devised over the past 30 years, said planner Kelly Mezzapelle, who worked with the subcommittee.
The city spent about $12 million on landscaping and streetscaping in the '90s, and merchants and property owners responded with some renovations and improvements of their own.
Somehow, it wasn't enough.
The area has become blighted, said Surfside Beach Mayor Allen Deaton, who has owned a building in the Superblock for more than 30 years, and has been part of downtown revitalization discussions over the years.
His proposal to eventually open an auction house/bingo parlor there is one step, he and supporters say, to livening up the area.
The proposed new zoning districts are another, as is Melendez's new establishment and the events other merchants offer.
"I'm absolutely thrilled to hear such forward thinking from the city," said Andrew Paulussen, owner of House Parts, which stands at the corner of Kings Highway and Main Street, during last week's planning commission public hearing on the zoning districts. He pleaded with the commission to work out any issues its members have for the sake of the downtown merchants.
John Nance, whose father built 20 of the buildings in the downtown area, said he supports the plan especially because he hasn't had a tenant in his building in two years.
"We are desperate for this," said Melendez, also the president of the Five Points Association.
As the planning commission was looking at parking in a larger downtown area that is now mostly zoned central commercial, it appointed the subcommittee for a specific purpose.
"The commissioners thought the downtown area is special enough to study on its own," Mezzapelle said. "They recognized the area might need unique zoning."
Subcommittee members went door-to-door this spring surveying merchants and property owners. They got 38 responses - far more than any previous effort.
They met weekly and came up with a plan that creates two new zoning districts inspired by the Food, Arts, Music and Entertainment Festival local merchants started two years ago to draw a crowd downtown.
For now the districts are called FAME 1 and FAME 2, though they are likely to get different names after people at the public hearing expressed concerns that the zoning designations would stick as names.
Some would call this effort gentrification, because the proposal calls for excluding certain uses from the districts, including social service agencies and homeless shelters.
Committee members said certain uses simply aren't compatible with one another. For example, the FAME 1 district, which is bordered by residential areas, is not going to be pushed as a place for nightlife. The FAME 2 district, closer to the beach, is proposed as the place to get a drink, go dancing, see a play or listen to some acoustic music at a sidewalk supper spot.
Karen Holck, owner of Broadway Cafe & Gourmet, is one of the FAME festival founders. She is also a subcommittee member and a vocal advocate for the downtown district.
"I love the bohemian feel of it," said Holck, a transplanted Marylander who chose Myrtle Beach as her home because of its comprehensive plan. "I saw that the plan called for this area to be revitalized, and felt this area was just beginning to get the focus."
Her cafe is open for lunch, for now, but once a month, she holds an evening supper buffet at which people are encouraged to sing a song to earn a dollar off their dinners. The Sing For Your Supper events have drawn anywhere from two to 20 people she said, though she hopes they will catch on and become a regular favorite for locals.
It has been a way to bring the neighborhood merchants together, and she, Melendez and many of the others with stores and offices along Broadway and in The Superblock patronize each other's establishments and have become friends.
They have dressed up with district with twinkle lights on trees, keep the area clear of trash and encourage the monthly Broadway Stroll, an organized monthly group of people who walk and window shop the district.
But Holck and others need these events to be much more than just friendly gatherings. This is their livelihood.
"Through the rezoning, people will be encouraged to build a business or relocate here," she said. "If the city approves this, there will be so many more opportunities without a huge regulatory process."
For example, outdoor sandwich boards and menu boards will let people know the cafes and bars are open and what they have to offer. A sidewalk sale at a little boutique, flower shop or art gallery could make people want to stop in and spend some time wandering the area.
Allowing merchants to have outdoor displays could be an issue because it's an encroachment into the public right of way that's not allowed anywhere else.
The proposal asks that the city not require the merchants to have added insurance for those outdoor uses.
Kathy O'Hara, who owns The Tavern, said having a sandwich board outside to advertise specials would be exciting for her business. She wants to dispel the idea that the area is "seedy," and said if more people would come, they would see.
"We're trying to express our businesses outside the four walls," said Mike Hussey, subcommittee member and owner of the Bike Shop on Broadway.
Stone by stone
Melendez, a fellow committee members, said now is the time to invest in the downtown, because the city is focusing on it again and if both the public and private sectors work together, things can change.
The zoning changes are a way to encourage creativity and inspire business owners and others to rethink the area. Supporters cite other charming downtowns as their role models - places like Santa Rosa and Healdsburg, Calif., Charleston, Asheville, N.C., and San Luis Obispo, Calif. - where people flock to the downtown as much as to any of the cities' other destinations.
But even if the city approves the overlay districts, it's going to take a concerted effort among the merchants there now to advertise and sell the area, and among the private sector to make investments in redevelopment as Melendez is doing, Leath said.
"They need to find their niche and market it," he said. "The area needs more of what [Melendez] is doing."
The merchants and property owners realize that just getting approval for the rezoning isn't the same as waving a magic wand.
A good part of the plan's success relies on redevelopment, and there's no way to guarantee that will happen.
But Melendez, Holck, O'Hara, Paulussen, Hussey and others say they won't be discouraged.
Melendez said he's planning comedy shows, plays, live music - whatever he has to do to make his club a success.
"Nothing is going to stop me. You can build a city stone by stone," Melendez said. "This is my stone."
Contact LORENA ANDERSON at 444-1722.