The (Your Brand Here) Boardwalk? We Hope Not

November 13, 2012 

Two years ago, as Myrtle Beach was considering selling the naming rights to local landmarks in a bid to raise money, we urged caution, hoping that any efforts would be limited perhaps to only athletic facilities and not as a wholesale tactic that would unduly cheapen our city. Our editorial specifically picked out the boardwalk as an attraction that should be left out of any such considerations.

“The boardwalk,” we wrote, “has been such a success that it would seem wrong to cheapen it with corporate sponsorship: It’s Myrtle Beach’s boardwalk; this city built it, not any company; and there should be no confusion about that.”

Two years on, the situation has changed slightly, but our thoughts have not.

Myrtle Beach Mayor John Rhodes is no longer looking to sell naming rights to existing properties. Instead, he’s hoping to use sponsorships to extend the boardwalk, from its current 1.2 miles to 4.6 miles, making it just longer than Atlantic City’s and taking over the title of world’s longest.

Extending the boardwalk is a fine idea, and downtown beachfront businesses would likely welcome the extra foot traffic passing by their lobbies and storefronts. But a corporate sponsor simply rubs us the wrong way. We’ve accepted for the most part that corporate logos and sponsorships have become a part of our daily lives, particularly in sports, whether at the new HTC Center at Coastal Carolina University or TicketReturn.com Field at Pelicans Ballpark.

But athletic facilities – or even recreational facilities of other sorts such as parks or theaters – are one thing. It’s an altogether different and tawdry low to start renaming infrastructure for the highest bidder. What’s next, the Wings Beachwear U.S. 17 Bypass? Unfortunately, we may be in the minority in this position. Boston is offering naming rights to some of its most visible train stations. Chicago already has the BP bridge. Philadelphia has renamed subway stops, as has New York City.

We’re all for using the market to improve our area without unduly burdening residents, but there must be a line somewhere.

Nevertheless, while it’s easy enough to simply pooh-pooh this idea, the conundrum remains. A longer boardwalk is a great idea and would be a boon to local tourism. But the city doesn’t have an extra $20 million laying around to spend on it. So how could the money be raised?

Those who’ve never liked the city’s tourism advertising tax are quick to point out that it could cover the cost of such an expansion. And perhaps such a project would have been a better use of the money. But under the law governing that 1 percent sales tax, that’s largely neither here nor there. Eighty percent of the money must be used “exclusively for tourism advertisement and promotion directed at non-South Carolina residents,” not building boardwalks. The city has decided to use much of the other 20 percent of the money to reduce city property taxes, and the rest has already been tagged for other construction projects.

So what’s a better plan? Bandito’s, the restaurant that is paying to extend the boardwalk more than 400 feet north, has provided one good model for the way forward. Encourage businesses adjoining the current boardwalk to pay for extensions to reach their lots, bringing them more business and traffic and extending the boardwalk without city money. Not everyone will be willing to pony up the extra money, of course, but some will. If we truly want a longer boardwalk, it might also be worth looking into the arduous process of altering the project list for the current tax increment financing district that dedicates downtown property tax funds to downtown projects.

If in fact it turns out that sponsorships are the only way to extend the boardwalk at no cost to taxpayers, let’s at least keep it a bit classy. We could use the model of nonprofits, with just a tasteful plaque somewhere listing sponsors. It’s not that downtown Myrtle Beach is a bastion of elegance and sophistication. But the city has made some efforts in recent years to move past its cheap, gaudy past and clean up a bit, and we have no wish to slide backward.

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