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Atlantic Beach population drop may be new hurdle

The litany of woes in the Black Pearl is well known: years of financial crisis, an embattled annual Bikefest and vacancies at all levels in a town government that breeds perpetual controversy.

The next blow is brewing, town officials learned this week, as federal officials are conducting a six-month study that will likely lead to the closure of the 40 remaining public-housing apartments in town, eliminating a major segment of Atlantic Beach's population.

During that time, if the town cannot come up with a concrete plan to lure those residents back, their loss could push the town to the brink of the state's 50-resident threshhold required to keep its charter, reverting the historic Black Pearl to an unincorporated enclave of Horry County with no local control.

On the other hand, housing officials say the end of project-style public housing could provide a federally sponsored starting point for the revitalization of the town - if Atlantic Beach leaders can unify enough to seize the opportunity.

"Get busy living," said Housing Authority Director David Meachem, "or get busy dying."

Losing population

A surface examination of Atlantic Beach's population indicates a small, but basically healthy, population. In 1970, the town's first census after its 1966 incorporation, it had 215 residents. That figure grew to 289 in 1980 and 446 in 1990, though it fell to 351 in 2000, according to the census.

The current voter rolls also show more than 300 so-called active registered voters.

The number of people voting in town elections, however, paints a much different picture. In the 2008 presidential election in November - in which the first black major-party candidate was on the ballot - just over 114 people cast ballots in Atlantic Beach. That figure included a number of people who moved away from town when their beachside public-housing units closed down over the summer but were still registered to vote in Atlantic Beach.

The December 2008 mayoral election was much more closely scrutinized for town residents, with about 10 poll watchers who challenged the residency of any voter no longer living in town. The final tally of votes cast in that election was 79, and a court-ordered redo under similar close attention in January brought 81 votes.

These figures, some believe, are much closer to the true population of the town. Interim Town Manager Kenneth McIver, while declining to put a figure on the town, said the town has surely fallen below its census estimates.

"There used to be kids playing on my street, kickball and things, and I don't see that," McIver said.

On the other hand, Mayor Retha Pierce said she believes the town population may actually be growing and said she is conducting her own census-style count.

"There's more people than what you think," Pierce said. "A lot of people were never counted in the first place."

Transient electorate

A closer examination yet of those numbers shows the approximately 80 to 100 voters in town are in three main population groups: a transient group living in area motels, the slightly more stable public-housing residents and those living in houses.

The motel residents may be the largest group in town, followed by those in public housing's 40 units, said Jacqui Gore, a town clerk and longtime resident. On the town's four streets, she counted about 35 homes with people in them.

"There's actually a lot of people who live in this town you don't normally see," Gore said.

The motel population is an unusual but influential population component in Atlantic Beach. In the 2007 mayoral election, for example, 63 of the 366 eligible voters all listed the same address: 607 31st Ave. S., that of the Woods Apartments motel complex. Only 20 people with that address actually voted, but the long list of old voters with the same address shows the transient nature of a voting group that observers say forms an important constituency in town elections.

"The practice in years before was they would pull in transient people before an election," said former Town Manager Charles Williams. "The population of Atlantic Beach would swell with transient folks just before an election, and then they're gone 30 days afterward."

While the practice may seem questionable, those migrant voters are technically legal, said Sandy Martin, Horry County elections director. Once someone has lived in town for 30 days, they are eligible to register to vote there, and how long they plan to stay is not part of the application - beyond an oath stating they plan to be permanent residents.

Public housing

On Thursday, officials with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development described to the Housing Authority of Atlantic Beach their ongoing viability study of its 40 remaining public-housing units, but they were ultimately describing the future of the entire town.

The Housing Authority was riven by scandal about six years ago when its director was fired after federal authorities accused him of mismanaging the properties and allowing them to fall into disrepair. Three of the five board members were also replaced, and an outside management team was hired, the Statesville Housing Authority and its executive director, David Meachem.

Under Meachem's tenure, the Housing Authority has been a more stable institution. In recent years, however, federal support has shifted away from public-housing complexes, meaning Meachem's budget has shrunk each year.

Without any local money supporting the Housing Authority, maintenance has been reduced to critical needs only, and the units have further deteriorated.

A 2005 estimate placed the cost of renovations at $1.5 million, and that figure has only grown since then.

In 2008, the Housing Authority conceived a plan to sell off three apartment buildings on the beach side of U.S. 17 to raise $800,000 for major renovations to the 40 apartment units west of the highway, but no buyers emerged, leaving the Housing Authority with three boarded-up apartment buildings and no money to show for it.

As a condition for allowing the sale plan to proceed, HUD officials demanded that a study be done of the viability of the remaining 40 units. The study is expected to take until around October, and while it could indicate that some buildings are salvageable, predictions are generally bleak.

"It's a shot in the dark, almost," Meachem said. "I don't have much hope for staying in what we have now."

Housing Commissioner Beverly Clark said she thinks even the viability study is a waste of time and that the town should already be looking beyond it to its next steps.

"In looking to the future, it makes no sense at all to invest money into those old units," Clark said. "We know we don't have the $2 million to renovate them, so let's just skip over that step."

Gary Bell, chairman of the Atlantic Beach Housing Authority, lives in a single-bedroom apartment in the complex. His small living room cheerfully displays family pictures, a small entertainment center and an aquarium, but very little wear and tear.

Bell pointed down to a spot of chipped paint on a door frame, then up to a blemish on the ceiling, but otherwise, his apartment - like those of his neighbors, he said - appeared to be in fine condition. The main concern, he said, is corroded pipes underneath the complex, but Bell wished aloud that the pipes could be repaired without closing the apartments altogether.

"There's nothing really I can do about it," Bell said.

Josephine Isom, who lives next door to the complexes and said she has visited them often in her current and previous Town Council campaigns, said closing the apartments was a harsh remedy for old pipes.

"It's no reason to put people out of their homes," Isom said.

Shrinking further

The federal officials exhorted the people of the town Thursday to begin planning for the future of public housing. If no plan is developed, Meachem said the worst-case scenario is that HUD will simply sell the land to the highest bidder and walk away.

"They've got to make a decision, or they're going to lose their town," Clark said.

If the complexes are closed, their residents will all be given Section 8 vouchers to live in houses elsewhere on the Grand Strand. Their exodus would, at the very least, fundamentally change town politics, immediately erasing the voting bloc that Councilman Donnell Thompson in 2007 and Pierce in 2008 both called critical to their elections.

If the town's population is truly around 80 or 100 people, however, that loss could bring it to the 40 to 60 range, teetering on the edge of losing the charter that authorizes the government.

"When following its incorporation a municipality's population has decreased to less than 50 inhabitants, the certificate of the municipality must be automatically forfeited and void," reads Section 5-1-100 of state law.

Such a situation has not happened in at least the last 20 years and would likely have to proceed through the court system, said Miriam Hair, executive director of the Municipal Association of South Carolina.

The 2000 census counted only 39 people in the town of Lockhart, just outside Rock Hill, but that same year, the town annexed more than 300 new residents into the town limits. Atlantic Beach, landlocked by North Myrtle Beach, has no such option.

Pierce said she would reserve judgment on the future of the housing projects until the HUD study is complete, but said she hopes the town can work more closely with housing officials in the future.

"Regardless of what shape or form [the public housing] remains in the town, one of my main concerns is that I just want to provide for the citizens to remain living here," Pierce said.

The bright side

As public-housing projects have been disassembled across the country and replaced with mixed-income homes, experts say, the former housing residents may suffer from the displacement, but their communities benefit from a new stability provided by the new residents.

That, some say, is exactly what Atlantic Beach needs. Far more valuable than the bump in tax revenue they might provide, new residents would take a stronger role in demanding that the town progress.

In a typical public-private housing partnership, Meachem said the Housing Authority and a local government might each contribute land that a private builder would begin construction on and even receive federal tax credits as part of the deal. A certain number of the new houses would be reserved for people with federal housing vouchers, but the majority would be sold at the market rate.

In such an endeavor, Meachem said the poorer residents would be spread out, diluting the well-known negative effects of poverty.

"Poverty is what I call the misery index," Meachem said. "You concentrate it all in one geographic area, and it kind of feeds on itself."

And perhaps more importantly, the market-rate housing would create a middle class in a town where it has all but vanished, bringing also the stability and interest in preserving the community.

Reaching that point in Atlantic Beach, officials say, will only take leadership.

"The town needs to be saved, just because of its history," Clark said.

"It would be a shame to let it go by the wayside, which seems to be what's happening because they can't get it together."

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