Officials: More police not the only solution to Memorial Day lawlessness

Money for more police officers is likely on the way to the Grand Strand to help with Memorial Day weekend, but officials say that alone won’t solve the problems they say center around Atlantic Beach Bikefest.

Strict enforcement of existing laws, better use of social media to communicate with visitors before Memorial Day weekend, financial and development aid for Atlantic Beach and a Strand-wide effort involving all local government leaders is needed to avoid a repeat of the violence and lawlessness of this year’s Memorial Day weekend, officials said. Two recently formed task forces are working to come up with a plan.

Local leaders aren’t blaming Bikefest for what happened, but they’re saying those who caused the problems were here because of the annual Memorial Day rally.

“This issue is not just about bikers and bikes,” said Brad Dean, CEO of the Myrtle Beach Area Chamber of Commerce, “it’s also about the environment that allows that activity.”

“Do I think it was the bikers?” North Myrtle Beach Mayor Marilyn Hatley asked. “No I don’t think it was the bikers. But I think those people were here because the bikers were here.”

So far, more police has been the focus of the conversation. The S.C. General Assembly quickly passed legislation in its waning days to allow Grand Strand governments to use a portion of their accommodations tax revenue to hire police for the weekend.

That would bring an extra $2.3 million with just Myrtle Beach’s share, and no one knows yet how many police could be hired with that.

There were 220 law enforcement personnel that converged on the area over Memorial Day from as far away as Goldsboro, N.C., to help local police cope, but they weren’t enough to stop the outbreak of multiple fights on Ocean Boulevard and gunshots that killed three and injured seven in two days.

There were even more police in Myrtle Beach for Memorial Day weekend in 2008, and according to police records, there were more officers injured, more patrol vehicle collisions, more individuals arrested or cited, and more citations and charges filed than there were this year. There was also one homicide that year as well as more armed robberies, strong armed robberies, residential and hotel breaking-and-entering and more stolen motorcycles and vehicles than this year.

Social media

Dean is waiting on the plan expected from two task forces appointed to find ways to cut the violence to talk about the specifics of a solution, but he’s sure a part of it will involve social media.

He said Facebook pages devoted to the Bikefest already are exhorting followers to ignore the calls to end Bikefest and make their reservations for next year’s happening. Dean said they are touting the weekend as a time when you can come to Myrtle Beach and do whatever you want to do.

Once the plan is complete, Dean said he will take to the electronic waves to tell potential attendees what they will face when they get here.

Further, Dean said the chamber will beef up this fall’s advertising blitz.

More welcoming

Atlantic Beach Mayor Jake Evans said that strict enforcement of laws in Myrtle Beach will drive the bad element out of town. He also said he thinks Myrtle Beach should have a welcoming ceremony for the bikers and events that will give attendees and hangers-on something to do rather than fill idle time.

He said that’s what happens in Atlantic Beach, as well as an exhortation that the town expects its laws to be followed.

“I know it’s our festival and I know it’s grown out of Atlantic Beach,” Evans said. “Even if it’s not their festival, they should be more welcoming, embracing than they have been.”

Dean said that Myrtle Beach tried having Bikefest events in the Myrtle Beach Convention Center one year, but added that they weren’t well attended.

Evans empathized with Myrtle Beach over this year’s violence, but he remained firm in his commitment that the town would not cancel Bikefest.

He’s not sure the town removing its sponsorship would stop the weekend that has a more than 30-year history.

Stopping the 5,000

Marc Jordan, CEO of the North Myrtle Beach Chamber of Commerce, said the city’s Ocean Drive had nothing like the lawlessness that plagued Myrtle Beach, but neither does North Myrtle Beach have multiple entertainment venues and other businesses that attract crowds to linger.

If Myrtle Beach has laws against loitering, Jordan said they should be strictly enforced on Memorial Day weekend so you can break up gatherings before they get too big to handle.

“If you want to stop the 5,000,” he said, “you need first to stop the five or 10.”

Jordan said that owners and employees in North Myrtle Beach restaurants and hotels benefit from the Bikefest bikers and wonders, like Evans, how anyone will be able to stop the Bikefest.

“You can’t stop whoever from coming to the beach,” he said. “But we can control the amount of fun they’re having.”

Jordan is on the side of having more police to control the “fun.”

Put police checkpoints every two blocks, he said, and those looking to create havoc will go somewhere else.

He said it may seem harsh and even drive away at least some of the Bikefest bikers, but the lawlessness cannot go without a response.

Like Dean, he doesn’t know how many extra police will be enough.

“I don’t know how much law enforcement or private security it’s going to take,” he said, “but you’ve got to protect your property. I think you’ve got to get tough.”

Evans said the checkpoints and the toughness are fine with him, but if it’s going to be done during Bikefest, he expects to see it at other times of the year as well.

Dean said there is more lawlessness during Memorial Day weekend than others that are as crowded.

Everyone says this is a Stran-dwide problem and that leaders all along the Strand need to be a part of the solution.

“Sure, it’s terrible what happened in Myrtle Beach and I don’t ever want to see it happen again,” Evans said. “We in Atlantic Beach don’t want it to happen again.”

Little contact so far

But so far, there’s been little back and forth between Atlantic Beach and anyone else.

Doug Mayer, a spokesman for Gov. Nikki Haley, said Friday afternoon that her office is trying to contact Evans and other Atlantic Beach leadership and plans to meet with them on June 30. The governor has said more than once that Bikefest must end but has not offered any suggestions on how that might happen.

Mayer said those suggestions will come during that meeting, but wouldn’t offer any ideas she may have formulated already.

Evans said, though, that Myrtle Beach councilmen Mike Chestnut and Randal Wallace have both visited with him and given him a chance to vent a little.

“I appreciated that very much,” he said.

Wallace said he’s known Evans since the two worked for the same employer years ago.

“This is a lot to fall on you when you’re brand new,” Wallace said of Evans, who has been Atlantic Beach’s mayor for less than a year.

He said he’d read where no one had talked with Evans yet and felt contact was important even if they don’t agree.

Like Jordan and Evans, he’s not sure how Atlantic Beach would end Bikefest.

“It’s not their event,” Wallace said.

Even Dean described Bikefest as “an organic event” that attracts people who just want to be hangers-on as well as the participants.

Aid for Atlantic Beach

Dean said that he’s heard offers of financial and promotional help to Atlantic Beach if it ends its involvement with Bikefest. He thinks others could help the town develop things that would bring it more revenue year-round.

“Right now,” he said, “everything is on the table.”

That includes financial assistance to help Atlantic Beach with the revenue it would lose by ending Bikefest.

Evans said it would be a struggle, but the town could survive without the $50,000 to $100,000 it gets each year from Bikefest. But it has no plans to cancel its sponsorship.

The suggestion of direct financial help is a little insulting, though, he said. And if area businesspeople and governments want to help the town develop, they should use the plan the town has ready to go.

Wallace said he hopes the anger that’s been so much of the discussion to this point will cool down and that less emotional minds will shape the solution that all want to see.

He sees that there could be similar problems in future years if Atlantic Beach continues to sponsor Bikefest, area governments think their new plan to protect Myrtle Beach is working, and then their guard comes down and the same problems return.

It’s complicated.

But, Wallace said of the area’s elected officials, “How we deal with this is what we’re going to be remembered for.”