In the past year, the city of Myrtle Beach has bought 500 green metal palm tree bottle-opener keychains, 250 purple plastic car phone chargers and a “flip flop stress reliever, white with yellow trim...city seal in heel area,” in a quantity of 250, according to a city purchase order.
These items, all stamped with either the city’s logo or its name, are distributed at conventions and conferences. Some hats, embroidered with the city’s name in blue, green or orange, were given out at Myrtle Beach Fire Rescue’s Rhonda Brown Charity Golf Tournament. Bright orange lanyards reading “Leadership - Integrity - Sportsmanship” were distributed at sports tourism events.
When Mayor John Rhodes left for a summit in China on Sept. 6, he took hats, golf balls and koozies for cold drinks.
But of the city’s $22,000 budget for such items, $10,000 came directly from the Myrtle Beach Area Chamber of Commerce, potentially the only such money transfer in the state of South Carolina.
Rhodes brought hats with him to last year’s summit, too.
“It was kind of funny because, well, inside the hat it said ‘Made in China,’” said Wanda Bodine, an administrative assistant in the recreation department. Recreation orders promotional materials for all the other departments of the city, according to Director Pam Stone. Sports tourism promoters might want lanyards, while small yellow measuring tapes are favored by the Construction Services department.
The $10,000 that contributes to the fund for these items has been given to the city as a direct donation every year for over 20 years, according to chamber spokesman Keith Pierce. The money for the donation comes from the chamber’s accommodations tax revenue, collected from on bills for short-term rentals.
“Yes, it does come out of A-tax, but it is a qualified expenditure because of what the city uses it for,” Pierce said.
The donations began as the city was positioning itself as a sports tourism destination, Pierce said, and tourism promotion is an approved use for A-tax funds.
However, Reba Campbell, deputy executive director of the Municipal Association of South Carolina, said her staff could not identify another case where a municipality received a similar donation from a chamber. Pat Dowling, the spokesman for North Myrtle Beach, said that city’s chamber uses A-tax money for tourism promotion, but no funds go directly back to the city itself.
“They don’t give us anything in terms of money,” Dowling said.
John Crangle, executive director of government advocacy group Common Cause South Carolina, said he was unfamiliar with the direct donation from the Chamber to the city. “I never have heard of such a thing before,” he said.
He said the transfer is minor in comparison to the millions of dollars in public funds, from A-tax receipts and the one percent tourism sales tax, that the chamber itself receives every year.
“It’s a relatively small sum of money,” Crangle said. “I don’t know if there’s cause for great alarm, but you still have to wonder...whether the money’s being used in a constructive fashion.”
He added, “Do they have any evidence that this works?”
Mark Kruea, a spokesman for Myrtle Beach, said some of the tokens are given to large gatherings like family reunions that request mementos of their time in Myrtle Beach. He did not know of any specific studies the city had done of the effectiveness of giving out caps, Frisbees, pocket hand sanitizers or other items for promotional purposes.
“We are unlike any other city in South Carolina,” Kruea said. “Our population goes up tenfold on summer weekends. Tourism promotion is what we do.”