MYRTLE BEACH — Doug Wendel’s resignation Tuesday as chairman of the board of the Myrtle Beach Regional Economic Development Corp. has begun what some think could be the retirement from public life of a man who has played a dominate role in the local business and political scene for a couple of decades.
He has said he is stepping down from the seat for personal reasons, but won’t elaborate on what they are, and he will remain on the organization’s executive board as well as keep the co-chairmanship of a two-state committee working to restore railroad service to Horry and Marion counties and Columbus County, N.C.
Wendel is credited by onlookers as being the lynchpin that transformed Horry County’s economic development effort from one that was not taken seriously to one that has charted a plan and tallied successes.
“He certainly leaves a large footprint, all the way back to county administrator,” said Horry County Councilman Marion Foxworth.
Billy Alford, EDC board vice chairman, announced his resignation from the group at the same time as Wendel. Foxworth said he wasn’t really surprised by the resignations, especially that of Alford.
He said Alford announced early this year that he intended to step down.
Through the years, Wendel was Horry County’s first administrator, North Myrtle Beach’s first city manager, director of the Grand Strand Water and Sewer Authority and chief executive officer of Burroughs & Chapin Co. Inc. He got his introduction to the area through a job as chief of staff to former U.S. Rep. John Jenrette, an Horry County Democrat who was convicted in 1980 of taking a $50,000 bribe.
Wendel was not involved in the scandal.
In Horry County, Wendel has gotten a reputation as a man who gets things done regardless of whose feathers have to be disturbed. For instance, as he moved B&C from a land holding company to a development company, some felt he danced along the edge of state laws to do so.
At the EDC, said Todd Woodard, president of SiteTech Systems and an EDC board member, “He put the infrastructure, the people, the talent and the funding together to make (the EDC) a long-term thing.”
Wendel doesn’t like to be the only person in the spotlight when things go right and insists that the organization’s success has been because of the work of many people, particularly a small group that he said pretty much divvied up EDC tasks as they came along.
“Everybody was pulling in the same direction,” he said. “It was amazing.”
Wendel said he first was involved with the county’s economic development effort in the 1980s, but at that time Horry County still had an agriculture-based economy. While the tourism boom was just beginning, he said the timing wasn’t right to focus on the job diversity that’s driving the current effort.
Through the years, economic development had somewhat of a stepchild’s role in county development efforts and stuttered along without a real plan or a real budget to get things done.
When Tom Rice, a former Horry County Council Chairman and now U.S. Representative, asked Wendel 2 1/2 years ago to take the reins of economic development, Wendel said the first thing the organization needed to do was to develop a comprehensive plan, an effort that culminated this week when the EDC put forward a 15-year, $60 million plan to bring more than 4,000 jobs to Horry County.
“You need a plan for everything,” he said. “Once you have that plan, you have a blueprint.”
Even as the plan was being developed, the EDC was busy securing temporary funding from Horry County, hiring a staff that has worked to bring a commitment for more than 600 new jobs in just two years and selling the idea of aggressive job diversification to the community.
It was a team effort, Wendel emphasized, an observation with which Gary Loftus, Horry County councilman and EDC executive committee member, agrees.
Loftus said the team has kept the EDC moving in a positive direction despite some bumps in the road. He didn’t want to comment on the latter, but eventually said that, inevitably, tensions would develop between Wendel and members of the EDC and county boards.
“There are strong personalities on that (EDC executive) committee,” Loftus said, “and sometimes they’re going to cross swords.”
Loftus said it will be interesting to see how Wendel participates on the executive committee, now that he won’t be chairman.
“It’s hard for a guy like him to let go,” Loftus said.
No one seemed shocked at Wendel’s resignation.
Loftus, for instance, said that Wendel had said he’d resign when the EDC brought Horry County 500 jobs, a benchmark the County Council had set for continued funding. As the scoreboard neared the number, EDC supporters and some council members disagreed over how to count those jobs.
The EDC counted job commitments, which it said was the way they are tallied nationwide, but some council members believed a job isn’t a job until someone is getting paid to do it. The funding agreement between the county and the EDC didn’t specify which would be official, so the council recently agreed to two more years funding at a lower level than previously.
Neyle Wilson, president of Horry Georgetown Technical College and one of the EDC’s inner circle according to Wendel, said he thinks Wendel has accomplished what he intended to as chairman and just wanted to slow down.
“He’s spent an enormous amount of time (as chairman),” Wilson said, an observation shared by others.
Wilson said Wendel had an understanding of what needed to be done to make economic development successful and that he was particularly strong at putting deals together, a trait that served him well throughout his working career. Wilson said Wendel had the energy and commitment needed to chart a clear course for economic diversification.
“I think he’s wanted to get out for a while,” said Woodard, who lives in the same neighborhood as Wendel. “I think he’s trying to slowly retire.”
Like Loftus, Woodard said he thinks that Wendel feels he’s accomplished what he wanted to as EDC board chairman and that the organization is on a good track.
“I think he did a great job,” Woodard said.
Foxworth noted that the EDC board bent its own rules to allow Wendel to be its board chairman for the last six months. He said the group’s bylaws say a chairman can serve only two, one-year terms, a limit that Wendel reached at the end of 2012.
“If you’re not going to have term limits,” he said, “why have the bylaws?”
Wendel said he believes his greatest strength is a natural ability to envision solutions and then put together teams to accomplish them.
He said it’s going to take courage for the county’s leaders to keep on the road the EDC has charted. People will need to make the hard decisions, but not doing so will lead to regrets in future years that no one pushed harder to give Horry County a strong, year-round economy.
And stopping to catch a leisurely breath won’t work either, he said.
“Once we stop,” he said, “it will be hard to pick it back up again.”
Wendel’s term on the EDC board ends at the end of December, and he said he will decide then if he’ll completely step away from it.
“I’ll be as active as they need me to be,” he said.
But he won’t have to worry that his successor, if only temporary, will falter.
“I’m going to try to do whatever it takes to move this plan forward,” said Fred Richardson, director of Grand Strand Water and Sewer Authority who has been named interim EDC board chairman.
He said that under Wendel’s leadership, the EDC has created the most jobs in the shortest time of any of the area’s economic development efforts.
He agreed with Wendel that reaching the 15-year plan’s main goal of securing sites and buildings for new industry is essential for success.
Without something tangible to show prospects or at least a plan to develop those things, he said, “You’re really not making the first cut” of manufacturers looking for a new place to call home.
Richardson, an Horry County native, said he wants to build an economy with the opportunities that young people now have to go elsewhere to find.
Horry County’s economic development is in the best shape it’s ever been in, he said, and a large share of that is due to Wendel.
“I think he was the right person at the right time,” Richardson said.
Contact STEVE JONES at 444-1765.