The realignment of U.S. 501 into 7th Avenue North promises to be a transformational project for downtown Myrtle Beach — and after years of discussion, it soon will be a reality.
The road project secured permanent backing last November when voters approved county-wide transportation funding in RIDE III. It will be handled by the S.C. Department of Transportation, which will begin the design process for the estimated $13.9 million project in 2018.
On Tuesday, Myrtle Beach Councilman Wayne Gray praised the project as one that could create a new centerpiece entrance to the beach.
“That’s your new main street, if you will, coming into your historic entertainment district. That’s a piece of what will be the game-changer, to change that 75 acres [on the south end] … that hasn’t experienced the same kind of redevelopment as other parts of the beach,” Gray said.
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But it has left some properties in the area in limbo — including Ed’s Hobby Shop at 704 Main St., which has been a fixture of the area since the 70s.
It’s no longer owned by founder Ed Fanjoy, but Ty Endicott, who has operated the shop for six years with his brother, said that the prime location means families will know to come to the same spot year after year — with parents sometimes bringing their children in to tell them stories of their own childhood visits to the store.
Being forced to move could price the shop out of existence. And a move is a near-certainty, as the building sits directly between the two roads that need to be connected.
Endicott said he pays under $1,000 a month to rent the 1,200-square-foot space. Part of the reason his rent is so low, Endicott said, is because the billboard on top of the building — which is grandfathered in under zoning regulations — is so valuable. It’s currently advertising Ripley’s Believe it or Not! Odditorium at 911 N. Ocean Blvd.
“It would kill us,” Endicott said of the move, adding that similarly-sized spaces in the area cost between $3,000 and $4,000 monthly.
The U.S. 501 realignment has been a dream of area officials for years, and was recommended to the city in a 2008 study by consultant Carter & Burgess, which said downtown could benefit from a more traditional grid structure. Myrtle Beach also is trying to find funding to connect the two ends of 8th Avenue North between North Oak Street and Kings Highway, another suggestion of that study.
“It’s not efficient at all,” Planning Director Carol Coleman said of the street pattern downtown.
Currently, drivers coming toward the beach on U.S. 501 veer left onto Main Street and then are dumped onto northbound North Kings Highway, parallel to the ocean. The connection to 7th Avenue North would send drivers directly to the shore, with the ability to turn off the thoroughfare in either direction.
“It is confusing to motorists, and it is challenging for people who want to get to various places downtown on an incoming basis,” said Dave Sebok, executive director of the Downtown Redevelopment Corp.
It’s especially confusing to the kind of patrons downtown merchants are after — vacationers who might come to town a few times a year at the most.
The existing traffic pattern makes it easier for cars to leave, because an exit lane at the intersection of Kings Highway and Main Street sends drivers directly out to 501. But Sebok said it isn’t conducive to bringing visitors to the line of storefronts on Main Street near 8th Avenue North, which challenges development in that area.
“It’s not pedestrian friendly, because of the traffic and the speeds,” he said.
That lack of foot traffic led at least one tenant, home and kitchen store Birchline, to leave a storefront on Main Street last year. The owners of that store were waiting for the area to gain more parking spaces, they told The Sun News.
Straightening U.S. 501 and 8th Avenue North would mean Main Street could be closed entirely to create space for new parking, Coleman said.
Coleman said the realignment alone won’t ensure that new businesses flock to the corridor.
“I think there’s going to have to be some investment and we’re going to have to have the stuff that draws people there,” Coleman said. “Simply driving by doesn’t mean it’s going to fix it. We have tremendous numbers driving down Kings Highway every day, but we still have issues there [with empty storefronts].”
Waiting for plans
Rebecca Breland of SCDOT said that after the agency starts its design process next year, it likely will begin buying parcels needed for the road in 2020 and is aiming to start construction in 2022.
Tim Wilkes, who owns a parcel of land directly behind Ed’s Hobby Shop, said that the forthcoming project has made it impossible to find a tenant.
“DOT has already taken that property, because nobody will lease it,” he said.
Wilkes said he already has that piece of land, along with some other parcels, listed for sale for a combined price of over $2 million.
He acquired the land in 2015, according to Horry County land records. Wilkes denied he had bought it in order to flip it when SCDOT begins buying the right-of-way for the new road.
Those that aren’t in the direct path of the future roadway are left more in limbo. SCDOT’s exact plans could make their properties more attractive — or more difficult to use.
Scott Greenway, manager of the Myrtle Beach Greyhound Bus Station at 511 7th Ave. N., said he’s worried the work could cut into parking lot space necessary for large vehicles.
“We may have to restructure and take the trees on Oak Street, cut them down and use that as a parking lot,” Greenway said.
He said the long-running specter of U.S. 501 realignment was a concern the last time the station renewed its lease, in October 2015. That agreement ends next year, when SCDOT said it will be in the process of designing the new road.
The station, right at the corner of 7th Avenue North and Oak Street, could see higher visibility from the change. “It definitely can’t hurt” to be on a major road, Greenway said, but walk-in customers are uncommon.
“People either ride the bus or don’t,” he said.