Downtown Myrtle Beach business group in transition

dbryant@thesunnews.comOctober 27, 2012 

  • Jonathan Staton Job | former president of Oceanfront Merchants Association, owner of Bumstead’s Pub and Dagwood’s Deli & Sports Bar Age | 40 Hometown | Alexandria, Va. Education | bachelor’s in hotel, restaurant and tourism administration, University of South Carolina Hobbies | Fishing

— Without Jonathan Staton, downtown Myrtle Beach might not have the level of concerts, kids carnivals and other entertainment every night during the summer. Or the kind of Oktoberfest and St. Patrick’s Day festivals along Ocean Boulevard that lure thousands of revelers downtown.

Staton, as one of the founders and president of the Oceanfront Merchants Association for the past five years, worked with other business owners to come up with those ideas and was the go-to guy to make them happen for a group with no paid executive director, his colleagues said.

That meant spending hours lining up vendors, securing contracts with bands, attending City Council meetings asking for permission and support of the events and answering all the random questions. And that’s on top of operating his own businesses, Bumstead’s Pub off Mr. Joe White Avenue and Dagwood’s Deli & Sports Bar, which has two locations, on Mr. Joe White Avenue in Myrtle Beach and off U.S. 17 Business in Surfside Beach.

“They may not know what he looks like, but they owe him a huge deal of thanks,” said Chris Walker, another downtown Myrtle Beach business owner who helped Staton start the association and is following him as its new president. “Fortunately he was the right guy at the right time. We needed somebody with a lot of energy and a lot of enthusiasm, and top of the list is hard worker -- and he’s the hardest worker.”

Staton stepped aside as president earlier this month, ready to hand off the duties that -- thanks of the association’s success -- had become overwhelming for the small business owner to juggle. He’s ready to focus again on his businesses -- he has aspirations of opening a Dagwood’s in Charleston -- and break in a boat he bought late last year with frequent fishing trips.

“I now have a hobby again,” said Staton, sitting at an empty table at Bumstead’s Pub on a recent afternoon. “It’s taken away from my own personal life and my career as well. I was doing more for downtown than for my businesses.”

While Staton steps aside -- he remains active as one of the association’s roughly 60 members -- the group faces a crossroads. It’s working to hire its first executive director who likely will be on board by the spring, and Walker plans to work with the group to determine where it goes from here, including expanding on a wintertime festival that debuts this year, potentially growing the group’s membership area and adding sponsors for the first time to some of the events and festivals.

Filling the Pavilion void

The association has surpassed even its founders’ expectations.

Staton, Walker and a few other downtown business owners formed the group in early 2007, determined to rejuvenate the downtown area with the loss of its main anchor, The Myrtle Beach Pavilion Amusement Park that shut down after the 2006 tourist season. The business owners, which had watched business dwindle in the previous years, wanted to come up with ways to keep visitors coming back to downtown and lure new ones.

A downtown business group wasn’t a new idea, others had tried through the years, but it never stuck. This time was different though, with the loss of the Pavilion making the effort more urgent. Determined business owners were not willing to wait and see what might happen instead of aggressively making something happen, Staton said.

“We felt that something really needed to be done with the absence of the Pavilion,” he said.

This was, after all, the traditional tourism heart of Myrtle Beach, where generations have flocked to relive the good old days and make new memories. This commercial and amusement hub of Ocean Boulevard is dotted with decades-old shops and eateries such as the Gay Dolphin Gift Cove and Peaches Corner, new attractions such as the Sky Wheel and go-to staples such as Ripley’s Believe it or Not museum.

The merchants association was determined to preserve the special atmosphere of this area and keep their businesses bustling. The city also wanted to see its downtown core thrive, investing in sidewalk improvements, burying overhead power lines and building the 1.2-mile long boardwalk two years ago -- which business owners have said has been a big step in boosting their business and traffic downtown.

“You’ve got songs about Ocean Boulevard, history along Ocean Boulevard that just can’t be forgotten,” Staton said.

The group’s first effort included a few nights of entertainment each week along Ocean Boulevard during that first post-Pavilion summer in 2007. That’s evolved into entertainment -- concerts, fireworks, a kids carnival -- every night of the week during the summer, dubbed Hot Summer Nights. Then came the idea of shoulder season festivals to lure visitors as well as locals downtown, Oktoberfest and St. Patrick’s Day.

“It started very small and was not very demanding,” Staton said. “Now there are weeks where I focus on nothing else but the Oceanfront Merchants Association.”

Staton shouldered much of the logistics of pulling off those programs, Walker said, adding that the “Oktoberfest and St. Patrick’s Day festivals are 99.9 percent all his work.

“We could have never afforded to hire anybody to do what he’s been doing,” Walker said. “He does it because he’s a great guy who cares about the area down there.”

As the duties grew, Staton first mentioned about two years ago his desire to step aside as the go-to guy, but continued doing the work. Then he said it again, and again until this time it finally stuck.

“I didn’t want to see it fail,” Staton said. “Nobody wanted the position. I wasn’t going to sit back and watch it fail.”

The association is made up mostly of small business owners, who juggle running their businesses, strategizing for the area and raising families -- not having the time to devote to doing the legwork that Staton did, Walker said.

“None of us are going home at 5 [p.m.], putting our feet up and watching ‘Wheel of Fortune,’” Walker said.

Seeking a new leader

The transition in leadership gives the association an opportunity to craft new strategies moving forward, said Dave Sebok, executive director of Myrtle Beach’s Downtown Redevelopment Corp., which works closely with the Oceanfront Merchants Association and is helping through the transition.

More business owners must share the work, he said, adding that an association executive director also will pick up some of the duties. “It will take a different sort of teamwork approach,” he said.

The association -- which has an annual budget of about $300,000 from memberships, accommodations tax revenues and other sources -- also is at a crossroads in determining where to go from here. First on the to-do list is hiring its first executive director.

The group also will consider whether to expand its boundary -- it now covers from Seventh Avenue North to 14th Avenue North, from the ocean to Kings Highway -- to go farther south along Ocean Boulevard and farther west to include what’s known as the Superblock area. Sebok said the group also needs to take on more of a role in luring new businesses and attractions to the area -- they sometimes have the best connections, he said -- and make sure that businesses are providing the best customer service so visitors will return.

“It’s a good time for everybody to get together and move to the next generation,” Sebok said. “There’s much more to be done by the DRC and OMA. We’ve only really made the first significant steps in the last few years.”

Sebok credited Staton with helping the association get going and grow.

“Jonathan nearly single-handedly brought it from nothing to a very successful merchants association,” he said. “His enthusiasm and the dedication and creativity was critical to the success of the organization to date. It sets the bar pretty high.”

With the president’s duties off his plate, Staton already is spending more time on expanding his businesses. “Charleston is a huge goal of mine,” he said.

And plans are in the works to add an outside patio at Bumstead’s Pub that could hold 40 patrons, with a firepit and possibly a stage for live entertainment.

Staton knows his successors will have questions. Though he was ready to hand over the reins, it was still a bittersweet moment.

“Hey, I’ll miss it all. I had a wee bit of sadness when I walked out of the room not on the board anymore,” Staton said. “But it’s something I need to do.”

Walker said Staton has earned the time to take a break.

“If he wants to go fishing, let him go fishing,” Walker said. “He deserves it.”

Contact DAWN BRYANT at 626-0296 or at dbryant@thesunnews.com or follow her at Twitter.com/TSN_dawnbryant.

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