Leaders say future of Myrtle Beach depends on diverse economy, attractions

mprabhu@thesunnews.comNovember 30, 2013 

— The future of Myrtle Beach is bright.

That’s the belief of many of those who have a say in shaping the way the city will look in the upcoming decades.

As Myrtle Beach begins to wrap up a year of celebrating its 75th birthday, many leaders are looking toward what they hope is in store for the next 75 years.

Multi-use, walkable communities, increased sports tourism, and diverse attractions and entertainment options all are things leaders hope to see as Myrtle Beach evolves.

“We plan to have a sustainable future,” said Myrtle Beach Planning Department director Jack Walker. “That means we’ll have a healthy network of neighborhoods. And equity when it comes to education and jobs.”

Walker said the future of the city depends in many ways on the diversification of the economy.

“That doesn’t mean abandoning tourism,” he said. “But tourists are fickle because they can go anywhere they want to. In Myrtle Beach our tradition is family tourism. We’ve diversified over the past few decades with golf tourism, senior tourism and sports tourism.”

Myrtle Beach Mayor John Rhodes pointed to sports tourism as something he thinks will be central to the city’s future. Rhodes is executive director of the annual Beach Ball Classic, which brings 16 basketball teams to Myrtle Beach to compete in a tournament each December.

The city is funding construction of an estimated $12.4 million, 100,000-square-foot indoor sports complex adjacent to the Myrtle Beach Convention Center. It is expected to open in spring 2015.

“With the sports-plex we have a new opportunity of developing sports tourism to its fullest,” Rhodes said. “That’s going to have an economic impact.”

Brad Dean, president and CEO of the Myrtle Beach Area Chamber of Commerce, also said he believed sports tourism is one way to help grow the economy, especially during the off-season.

“As a tourism destination we are quickly gaining more national awareness and are well positioned to grow our tourism industry in the shoulder seasons, particularly in group markets and sports tourism,” Dean said. “And by group markets I mean specifically conventions, meetings, associations.”

Dean pointed to the new terminal at Myrtle Beach International Airport, which opened this spring, as another way to expand the city’s tourism reach.

“Most of the tourism today for the Myrtle Beach area comes from east of the Mississippi River and Canada,” he said. “With improved air service we anticipate seeing increasing numbers of visitors from markets west of the Mississippi River. And as international travel to the U.S. grows we can expect to ride that wave of inbound tourism, particularly from parts of Europe and the Far East.”

More than tourism

Walker said the area needs to look at expanding more than just sports tourism in the future.

“Sustainable tourism is not putting all your eggs in one basket,” he said.

Walker said Myrtle Beach also needs to become an economy that draws people not only to visit, but to live year-round.

“The city needs to not be one that relies on tourism but creates a place that people want to live,” he said. “In many successful cities, if you create a quality of life, you attract people and the jobs will follow.”

Diane Moskow-McKenzie, senior planner with the city, said people shouldn’t be resistant to broadening the city’s economic priorities. It’s a necessary part of making sure the city continues to bring not only tourists, but new residents to town as well, she said.

“We compete with a lot of communities,” Moskow-McKenzie said. “If we’re not progressive and we don’t look to the future, we’re going to have trouble competing.”

Walker said eventually he envisions a number of mixed-use neighborhoods – what he calls “villages” – throughout the city, similar to what is seen at The Market Common, which is a dense, walkable community with residential properties above a mix of retail, restaurants, a movie theater and grocery store.

“We need to evolve from a big-box [mindset] that’s an auto-driven society,” he said. “We need pedestrian-friendly improvements and bike improvements – we need to get an expanded transit system.”

Walker pointed to the vacant former Myrtle Square Mall property that sits along Kings Highway between 21st and 27th avenues North owned by Burroughs & Chapin Co. Inc. as a potential place that could be developed into a multi-use urban center that would have retail and residential all in one place and then, through expanded mass transit and improved bicycle and pedestrian lanes and paths, connect to the rest of the city.

“Even with Broadway at the Beach,” he said. “You can look at that as being – in the future – as being more than a one-and-a-half- to two-season destination. We need to cycle out some of the purely seasonal [developments]. Broadway needs a mix of uses. It needs to be repackaged and housing needs to be a part of that.”

Burroughs & Chapin, which also owns Broadway at the Beach, declined to comment.

There also needs to be more residential along with the commercial development that’s happening in downtown Myrtle Beach, Walker said.

Diverse attractions

Downtown development is going to help make Myrtle Beach become a major resort in the next 15 to 20 years, according to Victor Shamah, who owns a number of businesses along Ocean Boulevard, including The Bowery. He said he didn’t think the city should stray too far from its tourism roots.

“I think we haven’t hit the tip of the iceberg,” he said. “Tourism is an industry here. Tourism is what built Myrtle Beach. … It’s our cornerstone here.”

Shamah said something he thinks could be a game-changer is to bring a successful theme park to the city. He said Hard Rock Park, which became Freestyle Music Park after its failed season, could have worked had it been in a better location – and catered to a younger audience.

“Once we get enough tourism here, the major theme parks might look here,” he said. “Hard Rock was catering to the people from the ‘50s and ‘60s. It was a rock-and-roll theme park. I’m not going to take my kid on a [Led] Zeppelin ride and worry about an acid trip. … It was orchestrated wrong.”

Seagate Village resident Joan Furlong, who moved to Myrtle Beach from Washington, D.C., almost two years ago, said if the city is to become a world-class destination there needs to be a broader range of attractions and cultural opportunities.

“I’m very happy the performing arts center referendum passed,” she said. “I hope the city moves forward with that.”

Almost 54 percent of voters supported a referendum in November that allows the city to purchase $10 million in bonds to build a performing arts center near the Myrtle Beach Convention Center. The City Council is not obligated to build the facility just because voters supported the referendum.

If the council approves purchasing the bonds, residents of an owner-occupied residential property would have to pay about $10 more per year on a $100,000 home, according to the referendum.

“I think [the performing arts center] would be a good smaller venue for some of the important cultural opportunities for the people to see and to participate in,” Furlong said.

Rhodes said he believes the city will move forward with developing the facility.

“I’m looking forward to doing what the people said they wanted and building a performing arts center,” he said. “That will also bring economic development.”

Sustainable future

Walker said the city needs to find a way to deal with climate change and how that will impact coastal communities.

“We need to get the community to the point where they’re comfortable even talking about climate change without being political,” he said. “We’re going to have sea rise – it’s inevitable – and we need to be prepared.”

Moskow-McKenzie said sustainability is a big part of the planning department’s comprehensive, long-range plan.

“It’s about taking things into consideration to make sure they have positive impacts on future generations,” she said.

Walker said that’s how he views sustainability, giving an analogy of going camping.

“When I go camping, I am to leave no evidence or damage of the environment,” he said. “We also have an obligation to mend some of the things that have been done [to harm the environment]. Meaning, if I go into the woods, I’m going to carry out someone else’s garbage, too.”

Handling growth

Councilman Randal Wallace said in addition to issues that would occur by the sea levels rising, he worries that storms are getting stronger.

“As Myrtle Beach continues to grow and gets bigger, I want to be sure that we’re always thinking about how to move people out of here fast and be prepared for any storms or other natural disasters,” he said. “We need to make sure we stay ahead of the growth.”

In the end, Rhodes said he believes regardless of all of the changes that could happen in the future, Myrtle Beach will remain a place where people want to visit.

“We’re going to see Myrtle Beach grow in the same manner that it has – maintaining as a great family beach,” he said.

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

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