MURRELLS INLET — On warm summer evenings, hundreds of visitors stroll along the Marshwalk in Murrells Inlet while cars filled with hungry visitors roll along Business 17 searching for parking.
It hasn't always been this way.
In the late 1990s, as a building boom hit Horry County, new restaurants opened at Broadway at the Beach and near the county line in the Garden City Beach area. They drew customers away from Murrells Inlet's longtime restaurants.
For decades, the village's waterside restaurants depended on the tourists who visited the inlet every year when they came to the beach, and on the additional diners they could draw by word of mouth and limited advertising.
The boom in new places quickly siphoned off the inlet restaurant traffic. And to add to the inlet's difficulties, Horry County passed a Sunday alcohol sales referendum while Sunday sales were still forbidden in Georgetown County.
At the same time, the pressure of development, including new residences along the inlet, contributed to a decline in water quality and raised fears among longtime property owners that their way of life was threatened.
In the mid-1990s, with no town council to look to for help, a batch of groups formed aiming to attack these problems. They included business and restaurant organizations as well as those targeting environmental and residential preservation. The varied voices had a hard time being heard.
In the summer of 1996, some of the group leaders realized they needed a new organization that could find common ground among the competing views of restaurant and property owners, and speak with one voice.
That is when Tom Swatzel, who was then a Georgetown County council member, helped bring in a facilitator from what was then known as the Downtown Revitalization Association.
Residents and property owners gathered for a series of visioning sessions and by 1997 they decided on a set of goals which they aimed to complete in 10 years.They named the new group Murrells Inlet 2007.
The mission that was adopted was economic development while preserving the water quality of the inlet and its traditional fishing village heritage.
Most of the organization's goals were accomplished in those 10 years, but the community wanted to keep working, so in 2009 members changed the name to Murrells Inlet 2020.
The group quietly marked its 15th anniversary last week. It received its letter of incorporation as a nonprofit organization on July 17, 1997.
Murrells Inlet 2020 has not been able to do everything it wanted so far, but it has “accomplished a great deal for the Murrells Inlet community,'' said Swatzel, who lives in the village.
County Auditor Linda Mock was MI2020's first director, staying for seven years. She recalled the village was the first unincorporated community in the state to undergo an open visioning process and attempt a development plan.
The organization “has succeeded in completing or improving each of the projects,'' and the board, director and community “are doing an excellent job,'' Mock said.
The Marshwalk is probably the biggest and most visible success. Before its construction, there was no organized way to view the inlet or stroll along it. Getting it built required not only money but also cooperation among the landowners.
Little could have happened without money, and its availability -- through increased sales at Inlet establishments -- got a boost the year the organization formed.
In March of 1997, a second attempt at a countywide Sunday liquor sales referendum passed. Not only did restaurant owners see that as a leveler for the competition, Swatzel helped pass an ordinance that gives MI2020 the county's share of the special Sunday sales permit fees, to be used only to build projects such as the Marshwalk.
The fees are $3,000 a year for each restaurant, though the state keeps some of the money.
With that money and state grants such as those for public water access and recreational facilities, the half-mile Marshwalk was built in three phases for a total cost of about $800,000, current director Sue Sledz said.
MI2020 gets the rest of its funds from donations and fundraisers, such as the annual oyster roast. Operations cost about $65,000 a year, Sledz said.
The Marshwalk was just what the village needed. People started coming to enjoy it, along with a visit to one of the restaurants.
“It put Murrells Inlet on the map, definitely brought it back,'' Sledz said.
Part of the third phase was the 700-foot pier walkway, which represents one of MI2020's unfinished projects. The walkway was to extend another 400 feet to become Veteran's Pier, built on the footprint of the old Government Dock that stood there during World War II.
But MI2020 was not able to pull enough property together to meet the requirements for parking spaces for the pier, Sledz said. That is something many residents and visitors hope can still happen.
Another of the organization's major accomplishments was pushing for the county to obtain Morse Landing when it became available. The popular spot on the south end was once the site of Morse's Oyster Roast, a favored, rustic gathering spot for many years.
The county maintains the property, but MI2020 built a crab dock on it, again using public grants. The organization also maintains flower beds there.
Recently, MI2020 was able to get Morse Landing Park named to the S.C. National Heritage Corridor, Sledz said. That gives Murrells Inlet another bit of cachet to interest travelers who seek out historic and cultural sites, she said.
Another goal of the group was bike paths, and that too has been accomplished, including a bridge across the southern marsh that links to Huntington Beach State Park.
Now, it's a matter of improving the bike paths and making them safer, Sledz said, and members are beginning to work on how to do that.
The next big project is being called Jetty View Walk. It will start at Morse Landing and run northward along the inlet behind the restaurants on the south end.
It will cost about $235,000 and the money is already in hand, Sledz said. The funds include money from the Sunday sales licenses and some that was being held for the pier. What is taking time is permits. When those are in hand, the design and construction can get under way, but the plan is to have it in place by next summer, she said.
The walkways, pier and docks are important because “preserving public access is number one here,'' Sledz said.
So the environmental education, the recycling programs and the water quality monitoring fits in with preservation of the creek and access to it, she said.
It's good for residents and for business if the creek remains fishable and swimmable, and that is why it is tested and monitored regularly.
“The creek is what drives our economic engine,'' Sledz said.
Members were alarmed recently when a 240-acre shellfish bed on the south end of the inlet was ordered closed because of pollution. They decided they don't want to end up like Pawleys Island and Litchfield, where none of the shellfish is available for eating because of pollution in those areas.
So MI2020 is now working on a watershed management plan to help prevent pollution from getting into the creek and contaminating it. Shellfish is often polluted by runoff caused by heavy rains which bring in bacteria from animal waste.
Channel dredging is another of the group's goals that still remains out of reach. Some side channels were dredged about eight years ago, but not the main channel.
The channel is the responsibility of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and Swatzel said he fears the job won't get done because of competing needs for money. The Port of Georgetown is also fighting for dredging funds, as is the Port of Charleston.
It will be harder to get dredging money for Murrells Inlet because it has so little commercial traffic, Swatzel said.
“I think it's a long shot,'' he said.
The importance of dredging would be one of the issues in an economic study of the inlet that MI2020 is seeking a grant for, Sledz said.
Asked to reflect on how MI2020 was able to come together 15 years ago despite competing interests, Swatzel said he thought “it was basically desperation.''
Sledz said she is not sure how it works except that it meets the needs of most of the community, which wants both economic development and preservation of the creek and their heritage.
MI2020 had only one bumpy spot as an organization, when some members supported a proposed boat storage facility and some opposed it. The result was the organization decided it will not take positions or get involved in land use issues.
What happens if the year 2020 arrives and the community still wants the organization to keep going? Will it become MI2030? Sledz chuckled: “I guess we're just going to have to wait to see.''
Swatzel said he thinks that even if all the projects are finished, the group may well stay in place to sponsor the growing list of events. Even though they are fundraisers, “people view them as fun,'' he said.
Besides the oyster roast, there is a formal dance, a golf tournament, Fourth of July Boat Parade and fireworks, a Christmas parade, blessing of the inlet, foot races and more.
And there's the water monitoring which will likely be continued by someone.
Mock said “keeping a watchful eye on the health of the creek as well as the economic climate is ever ongoing.''
Participants bring ideas, energy and wisdom to the task and they have fun doing it, she said.
“Seldom have I seen such enthusiasm and commitment to move from an economically depressed area in the 1990s to a now robust economy,'' Mock said.
Contact ZANE WILSON at firstname.lastname@example.org.