Keeping nightclubs out of downtown Myrtle Beach: protecting the area or stifling economic development?

mprabhu@thesunnews.comSeptember 7, 2013 

People fill the dance floor at Rodeo Bar & Grill in Broadway at the Beach's Celebrity Circle on Friday, Sept. 6, 2013. The bar is located in Myrtle Beach. Photo by Janet Blackmon Morgan / jblackmon@thesunnews.com

JANET BLACKMON MORGAN — jblackmon@thesunnews.com Buy Photo

— Ocean Boulevard has its beachwear stores, eateries and amusements such as the SkyWheel.

When local business owner Mike Rose looks at that lineup, he thinks there’s something missing.

“I think the downtown district needs nightlife,” said Rose, who owns two bars in Myrtle Beach and wants to open another on Ocean Boulevard in the former Club Exception building at Eighth Avenue North.

But some city leaders aren’t sure that’s an offering they want along Myrtle Beach’s main tourist drag.

A moratorium on nightclubs or bars in the area that could serve more than 150 patrons has been in place since January, keeping Rose -- who also owns Rodeo Bar and Grill at Broadway at the Beach and the Burger Bar on Kings Highway -- from moving forward with his plan to bring a nightclub to Ocean Boulevard.

Some, including Mayor John Rhodes, said he wants to keep large bars and nightclubs off Ocean Boulevard to protect the “heart of Myrtle Beach.” But some business leaders say those offerings could be a vital mix in the tourist hub.

With the busy summer season in the books, debate over whether nightclubs and large bars should be allowed downtown is expected to heat up.

“With the moratorium in place, there’s nothing to do down there,” Rose said. “We’re trying to wait and see what they decide.”

Representatives from the Downtown Redevelopment Corp. and the Myrtle Beach Planning Commission -- which at the City Council’s request has been reviewing the issue since January -- jointly recommended that large nightclubs be allowed downtown, while having those establishments submit a written safety plan and participate in a voluntary violence reduction program before being allowed to operate. Nightclubs currently open in the city would have 90 days to update or create a written safety plan that is approved by police.

If that plan is approved, existing nightclubs would not disappear from the city, but would have to meet the law’s stipulations to continue operating.

Chris Walker, president of the Oceanfront Merchants Association, said while the group will not discuss the city’s proposals until later this week, the business owners and potential business owners he’s spoken with informally all support the idea of safety plans and increased accountability while allowing nightclubs into the area.

“It’s just a matter of convincing the majority of City Council that putting handcuffs on this area isn’t a good idea,” he said, adding that the city shouldn’t limit entertainment options downtown.

“Myrtle Beach offers something to all people. Nightclubs are part of any large retail development. It’s been done successfully in other areas. It can still be ‘family’ while having nightclubs.”

The issue of crime downtown

Rhodes said he’s concerned that incidents that he said have occurred downtown at nightclubs such as the Karma Ultimate Teen Nightclub and the now closed Club Exception have a negative affect on tourism, the backbone of the area’s economy. Downtown is defined as the area from Sixth Avenue South to 16th Avenue North, from the Atlantic Ocean to Oak Street and Broadway Street.

In April, police were called to disperse a large crowd at Karma at 1101 N. Ocean Blvd., resulting in a juvenile being cited for disorderly conduct.

Police said the incident with the juvenile occurred after officers responded about 9:30 p.m. April 6 to a complaint about too many people inside Karma. A security worker from the club had asked officers to go inside because there was a large fight, according to a police report.

Karma owner Larry Frakes said he doesn’t believe the issues seen at Karma are due to the club, but because of the surge of people in town during spring break.

“The police have a hard time policing the area,” he said. “The issue has never been Karma. The issue is the excess in the amount of kids on Ocean Boulevard because of spring break. … When clubs close, they put X amount of kids out on the street and police have the issue of maintaining it.”

Frakes said the teens would be on Ocean Boulevard whether or not Karma was there.

“We’re getting them off the street and into a controlled, safe environment,” he said. “I don’t dispute the fact that there are occasional fights. But kids are kids. There are going to be fights.”

Frakes said teens attending the club must abide by the dress code and are searched with a metal detector. He said staff also search the girls’ purses to make sure that nothing that is prohibited – such as pepper spray or pocket knifes – makes it into the club.

“I feel, in my opinion, we do a really, really good job of keeping kids safe,” Frakes said.

Walker said incidents such as the one at Karma are infrequent and those who are downtown on a daily basis have a better grasp of crime issues.

“I’ve put hundreds and hundreds of hours volunteering for this area and I wouldn’t suggest anything that would harm this area or hurt the long-term goal of being family-friendly,” he said.

Victor Shamah, owner of The Bowery, said his major concern is what he said is a lack of police presence unless there’s an incident. The Bowery, at 110 Ninth Avenue North, is classified by the city as a nightclub.

“The first step is to get the right amount of officers,” he said. “There are not enough anywhere in the city.”

Shamah said tourism downtown has increased since the initial decline seen after the Myrtle Beach Pavilion Amusement Park closed in 2006 and the boardwalk opened in 2010, but the police force hasn’t increased proportionally.

Capt. David Knipes with Myrtle Beach Police said the city has not expanded the number of officers on the force in the past five years, with 181 certified officers serving the city. He said there are officers assigned to “waterfront shifts” that are on bicycles, T3 patrollers, on foot and in golf carts that patrol from Sixth Avenue South to 21st Avenue North and from the ocean to Kings Highway. Those officers are the ones to respond to calls downtown.

Possible citywide changes

During the July joint meeting of the Planning Commission and the Downtown Redevelopment Corp., business owners and other stakeholders told officials from the two groups that the city should focus on working hard to police and enforce incidents not only downtown, but throughout the city, and not focus on limiting the types of establishments allowed on Ocean Boulevard.

When City Council heard the suggestions from the two groups July 23, Rhodes said he was not in favor of lifting the moratorium.

“We don’t need to have the problems that we’ve had with some of these nightclubs [downtown],” Rhodes said during the council workshop. “I’m not interested in 10 percent of the business running away 90 percent of the business.”

City Council asked Walker to meet with other downtown merchants and return at the end of October with recommendations for those who would be impacted by any changes.

Rhodes acknowledged the amount of crime reported in other areas of town with nightclubs, such as Broadway at the Beach, but said he didn’t believe the city needed to regulate the Burroughs and Chapin Co. Inc.-owned property.

“Broadway has their own security that is there to take care of the problems they have,” Rhodes said. “If there’s a problem they can’t handle, they call the police in. On the Boulevard they just have regular policemen.”

Knipes said it would be difficult to compare crime reported downtown to crime reported at Broadway’s Celebrity Square, which has about 10 nightclubs and drinking places, versus any one club downtown.

“Even if you put Club Karma and Club Heat together, you’re going to see more calls for service at Celebrity Square,” he said, saying that some of the types of calls seen on the Boulevard are different than those at Broadway. “It’s a different environment.”

Heat Ultra Lounge is located at 415 Yaupon Circle, near Fifth Avenue South.

Planning Commission and Downtown Redevelopment officials recommended City Council adopt specific definitions for establishments in the city such as nightclubs, dinner clubs, drinking places and other businesses.

The proposed ordinance also would require the nightclubs within a “nightclub district” – defined in the proposed working ordinance as two or more drinking places sharing access to a common area, or operating on the same lot with the same landlord – have a common security plan for incidents that occur in the common area.

Rose said he thought implementing safety plans and having staff participate in a violence reduction program would only improve things at nightclubs and bars and said he saw value in having a coordinated response when issues arose.

“It would be good for business,” he said.

B&C spokeswoman Lei Gainer said the company had no comment on the ordinance.

Stifling economic development downtown?

Redevelopment corporation member Debby Brooks said in July that keeping nightclubs out of downtown would stifle the area’s growth. The Downtown Redevelopment Corp. was created to “facilitate the revitalization of downtown Myrtle Beach,” according to the group’s website.

“We’d be moving economic development from [downtown] to other parts of the city,” Brooks said. “We’d be discouraging economic development.”

Shamah, the owner of The Bowery, said tourist areas should provide a variety of things for people to do downtown. He said he had plans to expand The Bowery before the Pavilion closed in 2006, but waited to see the economy turn around.

“If we want to expand The Bowery [a ban on nightclubs] would stop us from expanding more,” he said. “We have to decide if we want the tourism or if we want to be a retirement community.”

Rhodes said that he’s gone to Ocean Boulevard about 2 a.m. when most bars and restaurants close and saw many young people in the streets causing issues.

“I’m trying to make the Boulevard where families come,” he said. “I want it to be a safe place to be so that families can enjoy themselves with their children or grandchildren.”

Walker, with the merchants association, said just because there are large crowds of young people on the street, it doesn’t mean they are all looking to get in trouble.

“There are folks who see the crowd and assume that if you have a large number of 17- to 21-year-olds out at night, they’re up to no good,” Walker said. “Most of the times it’s just young guys looking to date young girls. It’s the same thing they did in the ‘50s, except they don’t have on white shirts with the sleeves rolled up and peg-leg jeans. They have on baggy jeans and [tank tops]. It’s the same, but different.”

Contact MAYA T. PRABHU at 444-1722 or follow her at Twitter.com/TSN_MPrabhu.

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