Surge

Little wheels keep on turning: Mo-ped rental companies hold on for Atlantic Beach Bikefest 

By Derrick Bracey

For The Surge

Matt Silfer for The Sun News.

Here we go again. Every year we hear the rumblings from the city councils, from the police stations, from the suburbs, from the state capital. Memorial Day Weekend means The Grand Strand will soon be invaded, under siege by hundreds of thousands of people, most of them doing something these people just don’t understand – having fun.

Even after a mostly uneventful bikefest last year, South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley still implored the town of Atlantic Beach to call off the annual event, saying the state could help fill in the financial blanks the festival’s void left. Atlantic Beach would have none of it, and bikefest marches on.

A petition popped up on www.change.org, initiated by black bikers, to move the bikefest to North Carolina. The petition quickly received more than 2,300 signers. The petition stated festival attendees are “literally fighting with this community to give them our money with law suits to enforce federal civil rights laws.”

Another petition sought to abolish Atlantic Beach Bikefest all together. It gathered steam, picking up more than 8,500 digital signatures. The wording of this petition was overtly didactic, to say the least. It alleged, “Residents of Myrtle Beach live in fear and are prisoners in their own homes.” It went on to claim, “This petition has NOTHING to do with race, but the criminal behavior that flocks into our town …The city/county makes little to no money after all of the clean up, the court costs from arrests, the sheer number of law enforcement that it requires and the countless of businesses that are trashed or robbed from…It is time for our leaders to step up.”

Neither of these petitions resulted in any real damage to the festival, except a few more headlines. The bikefest roars on, and with it, small business owners of the Grand Strand tag along and try to kick start their seasons. “Try” is the optimal word here because just when they think they’re out of the woods, a new ordinance popped up in Myrtle Beach to throw a stick in the spokes of progress. This ordinance takes on the menace of mopeds.

But these rules ripple and impact those aforementioned little guys who are just trying to hold on and make a buck when the season hits. This is their story – the story of the little guys – the guys providing little wheels to scoot around on and t-shirts to commemorate the event. This is the story of those scooters you blow past without thinking about in traffic. It could be said that this is about all those forgotten vendors out, fighting the up-hill battle of making the bills through the off-season and to the summer’s end.

But first, a look back

This is Atlantic Beach’s 50th year of being incorporated – the golden anniversary. In 1979, a black motorcycle club, the Carolina Knight Riders, rallied with other bikers in the small oceanfront town and Black Bikefest was born, and the annual event has grown and spread up and down the coast ever since.

The bikefest has had its ups and downs, but typically, those of a prudish nature have been turned off by the loud music, parties in the streets and scantily-dressed attendees. Some residents of the Grand Strands partake in the festivities. Some are stuck at work. And some hide out at their homes until it’s over.

Then in 2014, the game changed. Three people died and seven were injured in eight shootings on Ocean Boulevard in Myrtle Beach. This brought budget hikes and tax increases in Myrtle Beach to accommodate traffic barricades and more police officers and body cameras and surveillance cameras and a skywatch tower to watch them in – all for a new and safer bikefest.

All these measures, and some don’t think the bikefest is safe enough, some still want it to go away and take all that money with it.

The little guys ask why

Some of these little guys think all these measures are “just plain Stupid,” says Gabriel Shitrit, the owner of Waves, a beachwear store in North Myrtle Beach. His store is directly beside Atlantic Beach and sees the majority of the traffic during bikefest.

Shitrit has been in the area for the last 25 years. “There was a time when everyone wasn’t so racist concerning customers,” he says. “It doesn’t matter what skin color a tourist has. This city grows because of their money. Why can’t we encourage them to come and build from their coming?”

We walk among the racks full of Harley Bike Week shirts. Shitrit tells me that business has been spotty during Harley Week. “But my Black Bike Week shirts will sell like wild,” he says.

Along Kings Highway, the barricades already line the street. “They put up those so they don’t get sued, to keep it equal for both bike weeks, but during Black Bike Week, they’ll be 20 cops in my parking lot, six or seven patrol cars parked here,” says Shitrit. “I’d like to open it all up and welcome them all in.”

“Last year, they didn’t even put any bathrooms outside [port-o-johns],” Jackie Brown, a Waves’ employee tells me. “People came in here to use the bathroom, started to shop.”

“In our small town, our industry needs as much revenue and to bring as many people to town as possible,” Shitrit says, folding shirts on a display. “We need to make them feel welcome and allow them to spend their money here.”

Back outside, Shitrit points to a Dolphin’s Beachwear across the street with “For Lease” signs in the windows. Weeds break through the parking lot. “That’s a shame,” he says. “People put their whole lives into businesses, and now, it’s gone. I want a healthy business. I want taxpaying customers flooding in here so I can pay those taxes back to the county and the state, and we can grow together.”

Shitrit has partnered with Jamie Lieurance, the owner of Premier Golf Carts. Lieurance owns a fleet of mopeds and golf carts he rents out of Shitrit’s property.

“Without the two bike weeks, you may never catch up from the off-season,” says Lieurance. “Then there’s the drop-off in the first weeks of June. Memorial Bikefest keeps us paying bills.”

“After August, we just don’t pull in enough money to make it,” says Shitrit. “Memorial Day Weekend is one of our strongest weeks because the crowds come here to spend. It’s one of my favorite weekends. They come to have fun and enjoy themselves. Sure, not every customer is nice and polite, but most are, and I appreciate all the business.”

“It’s true,” says Lieurance. “I think we get awesome people here on Black Bike Week. If you put a million white people here and see if you don’t have some problems.”

As we walk around waves, Shitrit wants to make it clear that he believes the residents of our tourist town are feed from the business of tourism, and as long as the business is moral, it should be accepted.

“Myrtle Beach is a young city, and we should embrace that,” says Shitrit. “Myrtle Beach is trying to become a senior citizen city and a family-only beach. Families have mortgages to worry about and kids in college. They shop at Wal-Mart. Tourists shop here. Why would we open one door and close another. We need the youth. The youth keeps us alive.”

Shitrit thinks the Grand Strand should take a few more steps further out, loosen up and transform into a more party destination like Cancun, Mexico.

“We don’t have spring breakers or senior week anymore. Where are they? Where is all that money going?” Shitrit throws up his hands. “Young people want to dance and drink in the streets and feel free. They want to have a good time and shop and rent mopeds and fall in love.”

Myrtle Beach puts on the brakes

Last month, after years of complaints about mopeds being reckless on busy roads, after 55 people were killed in moped accidents in South Carolina in 2015, after Horry County led the state in moped collisions, after 10 moped-related bills shuffled around the state legislature, after mopeds became the go-to transportation of drunk-drivers who’ve lost their licenses, the Myrtle Beach City Council passed a new moped ordinance.

Bill George, owner of B.J.’s Scooter Rentals in Myrtle Beach, has 120 mopeds and he tells me, “Every one of them will be gone on bike week.” He looks out the window at his fleet of colorful fun mobiles and continues, “If I had 200, they’d be gone too.”

The new ordinance seems to target the proprietors of moped rental companies like George more than single-moped owners or the responsibility of moped renters. It appears to come down to city inspections and registrations. Any company in Myrtle Beach that rents mopeds, powered scooters, golf carts or any other low-speed vehicles must have the vehicles inspected and registered with the city. The vehicles must display a medallion as proof of registration and inspection.

“The city of Myrtle Beach is making us treat these mopeds like taxis,” says George. “But people rent them and drive themselves. It’s like renting a car.”

The ordinance also requires business owners to post approved signs in their stores to remind customers of the laws. Anyone under the age of 21 must wear a helmet. All drivers must carry a safety brochure with them. Anyone younger than 18 years-old has to have a parent or guardian sign the rental agreement, and rental companies are required to train people to operate the vehicles before they drive off.

Even though Lieurance operates outside of Myrtle Beach, he says, “I always go over all the rules and paperwork with my customers, and take them outside to make sure they can actually ride a moped. If they can’t, I don’t rent them one.”

In the case of mopeds, instead of facing the problem of individual responsibility, Myrtle Beach appears to be attacking the pockets of small business owners. The real problem of moped safety on our roads is being dealt with by slicing little annoying cuts into the small rental companies who are trying to provide a fun service to tourists.

“If Myrtle Beach keeps pushing people away, no one will want to come here,” says George. “It’s going to hurt a lot of families. There will be poverty up and down the beach.”

“The restrictions they’re putting on Myrtle Beach mopeds essentially kills their businesses,” says Lieurance. To keep his customers out of the crosshairs, Lieurance tells all of his renters to stay out of Myrtle Beach city limits.

“It’s the responsibilities of the moped riders to adhere to the rules out on the roadways, and the responsibilities of the business owners to inform them as to what they can and cannot do,” says Lieutenant Joey Crosby, special events coordinator of the Myrtle Beach Police Department. “Our goal is just to make a safer environment for everyone.”

Rental mopeds are supposed to be regulated at 30 miles per hour and under. Anything over 30 miles per hour becomes a scooter. “Good luck finding a moped that tops out at 30,” Lieurance says. “A lot of these things are brand new, and they can move. You can rent sports car, but does the rental company monitor how fast you drive the car? It’s up to the person who rented it to slow down.”

“We will use radar guns on mopeds. We will utilize all the equipment at our disposal to enforce these rules,” says Crosby.

Myrtle Beach has also marked a big X across mopeds and golf carts in the traffic loop, and golf carts on Ocean Boulevard. The one-way loop is arranged in such a way that makes it impossible for golf carts to return on a legal roadway. So there’s another no-go for low-speed vehicles in Myrtle Beach.

“The traffic loop runs out to Highway 31, and mopeds aren’t authorized on Highway 31,” says Crosby. “That’s state law.”

These new rules roll out of a recently drawn up resolution by the Myrtle Beach City Council. The resolution cites Black Bike Week as an “Extraordinary Event,” and defines it as “an actual or threatened occurrence…which may result or has resulted in the immediate past history in loss of life, personal injury, property damage or destruction and in the major disruption of routine community affairs.”

Isn’t this any event which involves a mass amount of people?

Crosby fires back in response to questions like this. “It’s the media who’s always tying the city making changes to the bike weeks,” he says. He indicates the media always makes this more than it is.

I point him to the traffic memo I received from his office entitled, “Memorial Day Extraordinary Event,” and I mention how this ordinance came into effect a month before the bike weeks. I tell him if a law regarding moped safety would’ve come along in October or November and targeted single-owner mopeds, I would’ve thought it had something to do with mopeds being owned by single-owners who have a history with DUIs and increased drinking over the holidays. This would seem like a safety issue worth looking into.

But since single-owner mopeds don’t even need to get their vehicles registered or inspected, this doesn’t concern Crosby and he says, “Let’s agree to disagree.”

“I just don’t want my mopeds to get impounded because then I have to charge my customers extra fees, and it just kills their vacations,” says Lieurance. “It’s ridiculous. It’s like someone renting a car from Avis and then being told they can’t drive it in Myrtle Beach.”

Shitrit walks by as Lieurance and adds, “We need to be easy on our tourists. The police don’t need to give out too many tickets when they can give them warnings. They should deal with our guests fairly and with compassion.”

Crosby seems to almost agree. “The enforcement of this ordinance isn’t to impound or arrest people,” he says. “It’s to get people in compliance and hope they adhere.”

As if on cue, a customer has to return his moped minutes after he rents it because he misread his hotel’s address. He’s actually staying in Myrtle Beach for the week. “He’s screwed as far as renting a bike and having a good time now,” says Lieurance.

George thinks these new rules and restrictions are just picking on people for no good reason. “It’s not only me as a business owner,” he says. “You look up and down this beach. Mopeds are everywhere.”

“They really don’t have a prayer of enforcing these new laws,” says Lieurance. “Plus, it’s confusing because they keep changing the rules.”

The kids aren’t alright

Lieurance has three rental locations in North Myrtle Beach. He’s on the eve of opening two more, and he hasn’t had a driver’s license in the last 20 years.

“I have a moped license. I could probably get a license, but I haven’t tried,” Lieurance says. “It’s not because of drug charges or a D.U.I. I made stupid mistakes when I was young, got caught driving with a revoked license a lot. I went from having a Volvo S70 and a four bedroom house to raising my 13 year-old autistic daughter as a single dad in a trailer. But it feels good because I’m just doing my best, and I can see the progress.”

His daughter Tanner helps out with the business. She’s always right beside Lieurance, pushing around the mopeds, pulling chains through tires and locking up the vehicles, running errand after errand for her dad. She smiles a lot. It seems to make Lieurance smile.

Last Memorial Bikefest dug deep into Lieurance. On May 24 at approximately 6:45 a.m., 21-year-old Brandon Brinson was struck by a drunk driver and killed on one of Lieurance’s mopeds. It was the day after Brinson’s birthday.

“I felt like I wanted to quit,” Lieurance says. “It just wasn’t worth it.” But he didn’t quit, and he didn’t just send flowers. He packed into a car with one of his employees, and they drove up to Warsaw, North Carolina to attend Brinson’s funeral.

“It was a sad day. He was just a kid,” Lieurance says, sitting astride one of his parked mopeds. He scrolls through his phone and shows me one of Brinson’s last posts on Instagram. He hands me the phone and says, “There had to be 300 people at the ceremony. They all accepted me with open arms. Going there was just something that I felt like I needed to do, and I’m so glad I did it.”

In Brinson’s Instagram post, a post made on his birthday, it reads, “Thank you God! Thank you for letting me see, breathe, grow, just be a part of this world for 21 years.”

And I think back to what Shitrit said about needing the youth, and I understand this isn’t all about the money for these guys. Sure, they want to make a good living, but they also want to be party to the dance of youth in all its curiosity and mystifying glory.

Maybe, Shitrit is right. Maybe, Myrtle Beach lost its youthful zeal and got jaded on its journey for golf course revenue and family values. Or maybe, Myrtle Beach is in the middle of its midlife crisis, has completely lost its way and is taking it out on the kids.

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