Atlantic Beach Bikefest founder upset by Memorial Day weekend violence seen along the Grand Strand

mprabhu@thesunnews.comJune 28, 2014 

— When members of the Carolina Knight Riders began hosting a motorcycle show for the local bike clubs in 1979, they had no idea it would grow into what it’s become today.

And Cleo Shields, who was president of the Carolina Knight Riders when the festival began, said he doesn’t like that people associate the violence seen in other parts of the Grand Strand with the event.

“It makes me feel bad at times,” Shields said of the lawlessness that many associate with what is now known as Atlantic Beach Bikefest. “It’s not what they may think at all. There are a lot of Christian bikers. A lot of clubs do charity work. ... It’s the folks that come here behind the bikers. They think it’s the weekend to come to town and cause trouble.”

Shields and other members of the Knight Riders worked with former Mayor Cleveland Steven to hold the first bike show in 1979.

“Memorial Day weekend was a dead weekend then here at the beach,” Shields said. “There was nothing to do. ... The mayor said it then, though. He said, ‘I don’t think you realize how large this thing will get. It’s going to outgrow itself.’”

Over the years, the event has grown to draw more than 300,000 people, most of which spill out of the four-block town of Atlantic Beach and into other parts of the Grand Strand.

This year, Bikefest has become a target of some officials and residents who blame it for the violence in Myrtle Beach during Memorial Day weekend -- three people died and seven were injured in eight shootings along Ocean Boulevard -- and have called for the event to end. Atlantic Beach officials say Bikefest isn’t going anywhere, but they will work with others along the Grand Strand to end the violence.

“Atlantic Beach was under control, it’s always been under control,” Shields said. “It’s not the bikers but the young guys who come here and think what it’s all about is to come here and raise sand and cause trouble.”

More money is being shifted to pay for more law enforcement and task forces are being formed to create safety plans. Last week, the Myrtle Beach City Council spent about two hours behind closed doors in part talking about security plans for Memorial Day weekend.

Shields, who still attends Bikefest every year, said he agrees with many local leaders who want to increase the police presence in other parts of the Grand Strand – especially Myrtle Beach – to deal with the Bikefest “onlookers” who cause trouble.

“They need to bring more law enforcement to Myrtle Beach,” Shields said. “Atlantic Beach had enough law enforcement to keep things under control. ... [Myrtle Beach] needs to bring more security and to enforce the law.”

Always a draw

George Livingston, who was the motorcycle club’s business manager when Bikefest began, said bikes have always drawn crowds.

“People came to watch the motorcycles drive by,” he said. “That was the whole draw. ... Bike clubs are like basketball teams. They have a following.”

Livingston said bikers also were drawn to Atlantic Beach because they would allow the motorcyclists to drag race down 30th Avenue South. Those races eventually moved to a drag strip off S.C. Highway 90.

News of the event spread by word-of-mouth and the distribution of fliers.

“At that time we didn’t have email, we didn’t have fax,” Livingston said. “We did everything by mail and passing out fliers. We would go as far as New York City to Daytona to pass out fliers.”

Livingston said he was in charge of coordinating Bikefest plans between the motorcyclists and the town of Atlantic Beach. He said at one point during the height of Bikefest he worked with 750 motorcycle clubs nationwide.

“It used to be a lot more confined to Atlantic Beach,” Atlantic Beach Mayor Jake Evans said. “We’d have parades but as it grew we couldn’t do that anymore. ... It’s always had a family-type atmosphere.”

Livingston said the Knight Riders stopped coordinating with the town around 2000, and there is no longer one main Bikefest promoter. He hasn’t attended Bikefest since at least 2000.

Moving forward

Shields said he thinks biker clubs that encourage their members to come to town also should spread the word, especially to those who don’t ride motorcycles, that unlawful activity will not be tolerated on the Grand Strand.

The S.C. General Assembly recently passed a budget amendment that will allow Horry County – and municipalities within Horry County – to use a portion of accommodations tax money to pay for additional law enforcement during May.

Task forces also are being formed for local law enforcement professionals and attorneys to help create a coordinated safety plan to combat violence during Memorial Day weekend.

Gov. Nikki Haley has called for an end to Bikefest. Evans said the town will not end the event.

Haley had planned to meet with officials from Atlantic Beach on Monday while in town for a ceremony at PTR Industries.

“We’ve reached out and the schedules didn’t line up,” her spokesman Doug Mayer said.

Mayer and Evans said the town and Haley will reschedule the meeting.

Contact MAYA T. PRABHU at 444-1722 or on Twitter @TSN_mprabhu.

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