When the Murrells Inlet watershed management plan is completed later this year, Sue Sledz, executive director of Murrells Inlet 2020, will be near retirement and the organization will need to do some soul-searching.
“The board needs to be considering what the future holds,” said former Georgetown County Councilman Tom Swatzel, who was instrumental in putting it together in the first place.
As the plan will be the last of the major goals set for Murrells Inlet 2007, the group’s original name when it was established in 1997, Swatzel said it will be legitimate to ask if it needs to continue at all. It was organized to improve infrastructure and beautification, provide environmental education and preserve the creek and the traditions surrounding it.
That tradition includes being a safe anchorage for the likes of Blackbeard, participating in the Waccamaw Neck’s lucrative rice trade and birthing hush puppies.
Sledz was captivated by Murrells Inlet when she first visited the area from Cleveland, Ohio, where she was an IT manager.
“I came to visit, I fell in love,” she said. “Next thing I knew, I left that weekend with a house.”
She became a full-time resident in 1999, began volunteering for the organization in 2002 and became its third executive director in 2004. She left to retire the first time in 2008, but went to another job inland, returning to the coast and Murrells Inlet 2020 in 2011. This year, she said, she’ll retire for good.
Three years before Sledz bought her home, Swatzel organized a town conversation with the S.C. Downtown Development Association. Murrells Inlet had become worn at the elbows and businesses and other groups wanted to reinvigorate the community. A lot of groups were working on improvement projects independently, Swatzel said, but it wasn’t until Murrells Inlet 2007 became the area’s umbrella association that the work could be coordinated and focused.
Since then, the group has spearheaded the development of the popular Marshwalk as well as a Jetty View Walk, Veterans Pier and the construction of a bicycle bridge to connect the community with Huntington Beach State Park, among other things.
Swatzel noted that Sledz has been the longest-serving of Murrells Inlet 2020’s four executive directors. She’s very professional, he said, and gives the organization the credibility it needs to lobby with county and state lawmakers and to apply for grant money to carry out various projects.
Sledz said the watershed management plan should give Murrells Inlet the information it needs to improve and protect the marshland that’s key to the community as well as a roadmap to reestablishing harvestable oyster beds in the inlet.
“The creek is what drives our economy,” she said.
Swatzel said once the plan is finalized, Murrells Inlet 2020 will need to have a reason to raise money “other than to keep the organization open.”
If it finds that reason, though, he said it is vital that it have an executive director to keep its new goals on track.
Sledz said the biggest challenge in her job is to communicate effectively with office holders at all levels. How else, she asked, will they know what they can do to help Murrells Inlet?
“Those kind of conversations need to be frequent,” she said.
The best part of the job has been the personal relationships she developed through the organization and how much the community supports it.
“The love is out there,” she said.
She’s looking forward to gardening in her yard and sleeping in a bit after she retires this time. She’s pretty sure that volunteering will be part of her new life.
As will Murrells Inlet.
She said that it has kept the same friendly, small-town feeling that drew her to impulsively buy her home on her first visit 16 years ago.
It’s still a community without curbs and gutters, with boats in yards and three seafood markets that are open year-round.
“What’s not to love?” she asked.