Oktoberfest end signals new path for business organization

A group representing local business owners is taking a new direction as Myrtle Beach adjusts its downtown events to become more family friendly.

Earlier this month, city council approved a new event — the first Myrtle Beach Seafood Festival. Organizers said they hope to make the event an annual one, but as it begins it will replace another long-running event: the yearly Oktoberfest celebration.

Oktoberfest celebrations in The Market Common will continue.

The Oceanfront Merchants Association, which represents businesses in Myrtle Beach’s downtown area, had long organized downtown events like Oktoberfest. But after St. Patrick’s Day events were canceled under the group’s leadership this spring, the city decided to pull its funding for OMA and move event planning to a different organization.

“There were issues with some of the planning, and it was not the first event that got called off at the last minute or had significant changes to it after the event was approved,” City Manager John Pedersen said.

The fact that the event didn’t come through was a wake-up call for businesses in the area, OMA Treasurer Michelle Kerscher said.

“We were unaware, quite honestly, of how many people were really, really tied to that event,” she said. “We were kind of unaware of how big of a deal it was going to be to not have it.”

The responsibility of organizing events near the boardwalk has now been transferred to the Downtown Redevelopment Corp., a nonprofit created by the city.

Lauren Clever of the DRC said that Oktoberfest wasn’t bringing much value to the businesses by the boardwalk. “It was a very large event that cost a lot of money. There wasn’t any return on that investment,” she said.

Some businesses, including the Gay Dolphin Gift Cove, pushed to curb the event because of its focus on drinking, Clever said.

Kerscher, who also is a manager at Gay Dolphin, said OMA will now focus on marketing downtown instead of organizing events there.

“OMA is made up of business owners. Especially in the summer months, we are concerned about running our businesses and it becomes difficult when we have to also plan things,” she said. “The shoulder seasons have gotten better, but the 100 days of summer are still critical to finance the rest of the year.”

Earlier this year, a city council subcommittee met with OMA multiple times and directed the group to focus on marketing. Councilwoman Mary Jeffcoat was part of the group, and said that next year, council will look at whether OMA’s new mission has been productive.

“As far as I can tell, it’s gone very well,” Jeffcoat said.

Council also approved the Seafood Festival, and with it the end of Oktoberfest, on July 26. Kerscher said that event, unlike St. Patrick’s Day, was a difficult one, because it was highly dependent on good weather and brought liability issues typical of an event that involved significant drinking.

“No one really wanted to come up with a new concept,” Kerscher said. “DRC came up with this concept, and we’re willing to see how it works out.”

OMA now receives revenue solely from memberships and sponsorships, and roughly 100 businesses are members of the organization, Kerscher said. The group now has a budget of roughly $200,000. It will be entirely spent on advertising the downtown area, she said, and luring people who are already near Myrtle Beach to the boardwalk and the businesses close to it.

The most important thing, Kerscher said, is that downtown events continue. In particular, she said it was crucial that the boardwalk’s fireworks displays are still lighting up the Grand Strand. The DRC will now pay for that iconic summer fixture.

“The fireworks are extremely expensive, but it’s a thing this area benefits from up and down,” Kerscher said. “The hotels thought it was worthwhile and it really draws people.”