Memorial Day weekend in Myrtle Beach this year featured fewer reported traffic accidents, fewer citations and arrests by police and, many officials, businesses and attendees said, a lighter crowd of visitors on the street during peak partying hours.
But in the third year of a policing and traffic pattern put in place after the holiday weekend turned deadly in 2014, some are wondering if visitors from Atlantic Beach Bikefest are being discouraged from attending entirely by local officials’ safety plan.
Last year, several attendees told The Sun News that heavy police presence, barricades along the sidewalk of Ocean Boulevard downtown and a 23-mile traffic loop in place from 10 p.m. to 2 a.m. made them feel unwelcome. Those sentiments led to some calls to boycott Myrtle Beach during the event this year — though no organized effort to avoid the city’s accommodations ever came to fruition.
And this year, some said it would be their last year coming to the mostly-black event, which started in Atlantic Beach, one of the few areas African Americans were allowed on the sand in the days of segregation.
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Heaver Folk, 65, of Columbia told The Sun News on May 27 that he would leave Myrtle Beach the next day — a Sunday — a day earlier than he had planned.
Folk, with his grandson, Zaquwan Taylor, 13, leaned over the balcony of the Happy Holiday Motel at 507 N. Ocean Blvd., watching as a group of officers in the parking lot arrested one man.
“You pay all this money and stuff and you just can’t enjoy yourself,” Folk said. “They don’t want us down here, I recon.”
Taylor agreed with the assessment, and said that barricades made it difficult to move around on foot and that law enforcement officers moving in clusters down Ocean Boulevard were unwelcoming.
Elected officials said that they did notice thinner crowds during Bikefest, which is known for thick droves of revelers on Ocean Boulevard and heavy vehicle traffic.
“It was stunning. Friday night was stunning,” Councilman Randal Wallace said. “I don’t know that I’ve ever been down there on this weekend and seen a difference [that big] in the crowd. It was none of the street party atmosphere that’s been hard to control.”
Mayor John Rhodes said he also noticed fewer visitors. Asked if the traffic loop is discouraging people from coming back to Myrtle Beach for Bikefest, he said, “Probably. I’m sure that will have an affect on some.”
But the only purpose of that loop, Rhodes insisted, was to reinstate public safety in the event after one particularly violent year.
“Our goal for the loop was always the safety of the people that’s coming to the area, and the residents,” Rhodes said.
In 2014, seven people were injured and three killed after eight shootings over Memorial Day weekend. The triple murder on May 24, 2014, was not on the street but inside the Bermuda Sands Resort at 104 N. Ocean Blvd., however.
That year has hung over the city’s treatment of the holiday weekend ever since, with then-Gov. Nikki Haley demanding three years ago that Atlantic Beach shut down its Bikefest celebrations entirely. Instead, in 2015, Myrtle Beach more than doubled the amount of officers from outside agencies it brought to town, from 220 to 587. That figure rose in 2016 and then again this year, with 634 officers coming to town from municipal and state-wide enforcement agencies.
I think they’re using that as a sledgehammer to kill a fly.
Documentary director Ricky Kelly on the city’s response to Memorial Day weekend in 2014
The policing plan and traffic loop were conceived after the fall of 2014, when Myrtle Beach held a symposium of law enforcement from different cities, called by then-Chief Warren Gall, to hear about other areas’ experience in dealing with large, public events.
Included in that gathering was Atlanta — which used heavier policing and changed traffic patterns to curb Freaknik, a spring gathering that began with students from historically-black colleges, peaking in popularity in the 1990s. While that event was not aimed at motorcycles or bikers, several accounts include severe traffic congestion and people sometimes stopping in the street to chat, dance or drink.
Some of the same scenarios used to play out in Myrtle Beach, Wallace said.
“Traffic was stuck and people were partying and stuck all over the sidewalks, and it led to this very dangerous situation that happened three years ago,” he said. “Just the atmosphere was not good. It was just this giant party.”
Rhodes said multiple cities at the summit mentioned changed traffic patterns as a way to handle big events.
“That was only there to keep traffic moving, and not have the congestion,” he said.
But Wallace said that Atlanta officials did talk about Freaknik, and how they had treated that event.
“I think our police staff, at some point, did talk to the folks in Atlanta about how they got Freaknik under control. So some of this is, I think, emulating,” Wallace said.