Sea Grant Consortium talks working waterfronts in Murrells Inlet, Georgetown

South Carolina’s working waterfronts in five communities – Murrells Inlet, Georgetown, McClellanville, Mount Pleasant and Port Royal face some similar challenges as they strive to stay viable but also diverge in goals for survival into the future.

That’s the conclusion of researchers with the Sea Grant Consortium, Clemson University and the College of Charleston, who are bringing the results of a 2015 series of focus groups that included commercial fishers, tourism and government officials, restaurant and retail seafood business owners, nonprofit and industry representatives, and the DNR — in each of the communities. Researchers are sharing that information in public meetings in each of the coastal communities this week and next.

Tourism and explosive residential development have affected the waterfront towns and the commercial fishers, who find their dock space and supporting industries dwindling in the face of the growing number of tourists who are visiting the towns in an expanding season..

That’s particularly apparent in Murrells Inlet, the self-proclaimed Seafood Capital of South Carolina. The inlet differs from the other studied communities, explained William Norman, a professor in Clemson University’s department of parks, recreation and tourism management, because it’s not a municipality, but rather more of a region that extends to the oyster beds and to Georgetown.

Norman said that among the issues facing Murrells Inlet is a lack of parking and crosswalks have created safety issues and that encroaching residential construction along the marsh has pushed the commercial fishing industry and its support services away from the water.

In Georgetown, he said, the steel mill property and derelict boats have been a hindrance to a successful redevelopment of the waterfront.

“We’re in an unincorporated area and have to take our concerns to the county, where we have one county councilman,” said Gary Weinreich, a Murrells Inlet resident and environmental activist, who has questioned the effect of fireworks on the marsh and its creeks..

Weinreich also asked if the issue of uncontrolled development versus the fishing village concept was part of the discussion.

“Yes,” Norman responded. “The issue of the commercial development overlapping – no one used the word ‘uncontrolled’ – but the shared space concern. Tourism is part of the game and it has been for a while now.”

“I found it interesting that in the maps people drew, they included all the oyster beds. That was a direct tie to water quality,” said Julie Davis a consortium staff member.

Sandra Bundy, a Surfrider Grand Strand board member and former member of the Murrells Inlet 2020 board said one of the impetuses for the water quality study a couple years ago was to keep the oyster beds.

“That’s possibly why you saw the oyster beds show up there,” she said.

One problem identified by the researchers is being resolved. Dredging is opening up the dock areas at the restaurants, allowing more commercial boat dockage with access to the ocean.

But others remain. Although water traffic in Murrells Inlet is not as intense as along Shem Creek in Mount Pleasant, where on a given Saturday during the tourist season may find paddle boarders and kayakers right next to a large commercial fishing vessel, it is still an issue.

“I hate to say it, but as we continue to grow – and we are in the early to mid stages of growth – I hope we can resolve a lot of these issues,” Weinreich said.

Joey Holleman, editor of Coastal Heritage, the Sea Grant Consortium’s publication, wrote an article on S.C.’s Working Waterfronts and their evolution for the summer 2016 edition of the magazine.

“People really love their waterfronts,” he said. “About 60 years ago, you couldn’t say that. Waterfronts were dirty, nasty places.”

He compared the waterfronts to the history of the state’s mill villages. “If any of you know the history of South Carolina’s mill villages, they died,” he said, adding that the working waterfronts have some of the same issues..

“Everybody I talked to want to see these fishing villages survive,” he said. “They may have different ideas of how to do it, but they are passionate about the survival.”