The newest addition to a Murrells Inlet organization is adjusting nicely to the salt marsh, fishing boats and friendly faces on the creek.
Renee Williamson, recently-hired executive director of Murrells Inlet 2020, has already jumped into projects and presentations to benefit the community.
“It’s going great so far,” Williamson said last week, about halfway through her first month as director.
Research for the Watershed Based Plan, which shows problem areas and most significant causes of pollution in the inlet, finished up last month and Williamson recently reported the findings to Georgetown County Council – her first major political interaction as director.
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“That was basically my ‘baptism by fire,’ ” Williamson said. She said the council – and community – were receptive to her presentation and new official role.
The executive director oversees the organization and aids in the planning of events, projects and fundraisers. The director has a $35,000 starting salary, with the opportunity for pay increases after the first six months and then every year, said Sue Sledz, former executive director.
Murrells Inlet 2020 was created in 1997 – and was originally called Murrells Inlet 2007 – by Bill Chandler, who wanted to preserve the “antiquity” of the small community against commercial development. Though he’s no longer active in the organization, he said he’s proud of the work and projects accomplished by the group and expects great things from the new chief.
Murrells Inlet 2020 is a community revitalization group that works to improve infrastructure and beautification, provide environmental education, and preserve the creek and traditions surrounding it.
“I think Murrells Inlet is a lot better for having 2007 and 2020,” Chandler said. “The environment here is what makes this place.”
Williamson said she applied for the position at the last possible second, after deciding she wanted to return to nonprofit work.
“I have been involved with nonprofits for over 20 years, and between nonprofit and for-profit work, nonprofits have always been my favorite,” Williamson said.
Much of her nonprofit experience centers around the Greater Augusta Arts Council where she served as the events, membership and fundraising guru from 1996-1998.
“That’s really where I learned a lot about funding – writing grants and raising money,” Williamson said. “In those organizations you don’t have a budget, you have to raise the budget.”
From 1999-2001, she served as a marketing director for 32 McDonald’s stores, which gave her insight into “local, regional and national marketing techniques.” After leaving that job, Williamson took the next several years to raise her four daughters.
Her 23-year-old daughter Ashleigh-Anne recently graduated from Duke University with an environmental degree, and Lauren, Williamson’s 21-year-old, attends Presbyterian College.
Sixteen-year-old Lees and Emma, 14, both attend Waccamaw High School.
Born and raised in Augusta, Ga., Williamson, 47, moved from the smothering Georgia humidity to the slightly less smothering temperatures of Pawleys Island two years ago. She worked as the membership and events director at Georgetown County Chamber of Commerce until 2013, when she shifted her talents to the Wachesaw Plantation Club.
Though she resides outside of Murrells Inlet, Williamson views Georgetown County as a family that needs to work together to improve.
“Murrells Inlet 2020 is very focused on Murrells Inlet, but my relationships with Georgetown County politicians, people and the chamber are very important – we’re all a community that has to work together,” she said. “It takes a lot of people to be successful, and that’s the way I’m going to treat it.”
Williamson is looking forward to the personal relationships she’ll build through 2020, but said she’s realizing all the hard work involved in pulling people into a team and dealing with controversial issues, such as Monday night fireworks on the MarshWalk -- some say the fireworks are damaging the inlet, while businesses say they are a boost -- and the uproar over CMT’s reality show ‘Party Down South.”
Challenges and learning opportunities remain for the new executive director, but Williamson said the support from locals and board members makes all the difference.
“I have had nothing but positive encouragement. Everybody’s in it for the good, not for the money,” she said.
Nuts and bolts of a nonprofit
Murrells Inlet 2020 relies on donations and fundraising for operating costs, which annually amount to about $110,000. Base expenses cover insurance, signage upkeep, rent and other bills.
“We’ve been right at about $37,000 in donations each year, through drives and annual donations,” said Sledz, former executive director. “So that leaves us to raise about $74,000 from fundraising events.” Fundraising events include the annual Race for the Inlet, Oyster Roast and various community galas.
One of 2020’s key features is its completion of major projects benefiting the inlet, such as the purchase of Morse Park Landing in 1998 – with county money – and the construction of two bike lanes on U.S. 17 Business. Sledz said the group was also instrumental in placing signage in and around Murrells Inlet to promote tourism to the tucked away inlet.
On the preservation side, Murrells Inlet 2020 has championed several recycling projects including oyster shell, fishing line, and can/bottle recycling. In 2013, an economic impact study was completed to value the salt marsh around $720 million – “it’s definitely our economic driver here,” Sledz said.
The Watershed Based plan, approved by S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control in April, shows the problem areas and most significant causes of pollution in the inlet. The plan includes several projects to aid in water filtration and create more shellfish beds.
So why does a small group in a small town have such a large impact?
“We’re doing what the community wants us to do, and the community supports us,” Sledz said. “Murrells Inlet 2020, in its little isolated bubble, could never, ever, ever have had any impact without our great community support.”
Local partnerships between Horry and Georgetown counties, Waccamaw Regional Council of Governments and Coastal Carolina University allow 2020 to function outside of the tightly-knit community and braid funding to complete projects, officials said.
“We’ve worked with all those groups to make bigger things than what we could ever desire happen,” Sledz said.
The key to raising community support? Results.
“We’re very lean-staffed, but through our partnerships, our volunteers and our community support, we’re able to produce results,” Sledz said.
Working from the ground up
Murrells Inlet 2020 has come a long way since it was formed 17 years ago.
“At the time, there were a lot of empty buildings in Murrells Inlet and we were concerned about how it might develop,” said Chandler, who was born and raised in Murrells Inlet. “We wanted to have it develop constructively and not have it turn into a community of bars and such.”
“We wanted to help the antiquity of the area.”
The initial board consisted of business and property owners, and Chandler said the group reeled in aid from Wachesaw and other outlying areas. Initially the organization was named Murrells Inlet 2007, because board members developed a list of projects with a 10-year completion goal, including installing a bike lane on U.S. 17 Business and dredging the jetties.
One of Chandler’s proudest achievements, and one of the current landmarks in Murrells Inlet, is the MarshWalk stretching between Wahoo’s Fish House and Crazy Sister Marina. Murrells Inlet 2007 sought help from Georgetown County to raise funds for a wooden boardwalk facing the marsh, hoping it would bring in tourists and display the natural beauty of the area.
“That boardwalk really opened up the visibility of the salt marsh and the birds and the tides to the inlet,” Chandler said.
The MarshWalk was completed in 2005 with funding from Georgetown County, when Murrells Inlet 2007 asked for tax money made on Sunday alcohol sales to be directed toward construction.
So what was the most difficult step in creating such an influential group?
“Getting opposing positions and attitudes to pull together as one team,” Chandler said. “Everybody wants their bread buttered.”
After five years serving as chairman, Chandler stepped down but still continued to work alongside the organization. He attributes the group’s decades-long success to determined and energetic directors.
“With careful selection, we’ve had some very good executive directors – they’ve done a lot for us,” he said.