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Myrtle Beach focuses in on Ocean Boulevard to curb crime

jblackmon@thesunnews.com

This story has been updated.

After a rash of shootings, Myrtle Beach is weighing several options that could alter the character of Ocean Boulevard.

The street, parallel to the shore, has long been a locus of activity in downtown Myrtle Beach. But city officials say the area around Ocean Boulevard has attracted a dangerous element, especially on Easter weekend, when more visitors flooded into the city than the year before

“We need to change the atmosphere there,” City Manager John Pedersen said.

Police Chief Warren Gall told city council Tuesday that the street, the site of a shooting at 9th Avenue North on April 15 and near 6th Avenue North on April 16, is in need of extra attention by police, who are trying to find ways to send more officers into the area.

Gall said police are struggling with “the ease at which these young people pull out a gun and indiscriminately fire it in crowds, or at crowds, or up into the air, and then flee into the crowd.”

One fix in addition to more officers would be changing Ocean Boulevard to three lanes, including a center turn lane, and bike lanes on either side. The change would occur in the heart of Myrtle Beach’s commercial area, from 9th Avenue North to 14th Avenue North. Pedersen said that the new lanes would help separate pedestrians from mingling with vehicle traffic, which officials said is a chronic issue.

“You’re talking about ending cruising, which has been a hallmark of Ocean Boulevard for my entire lifetime,” Councilman Randal Wallace said, adding that several shops in the area prefer the high traffic.

Mayor John Rhodes said Tuesday morning he was willing to take criticism from those businesses.

“As a council we have got to look at stepping out there and having the nerve to say we are going to make a change,” he said. “And if this is something that could solve the problem, then we need to take...the criticism of the merchants on the boulevard.”

But in the afternoon, some businesses did come to council and argue against the change, including Buzz Plyler of The Gay Dolphin and other members of the Oceanfront Merchants’ Association

Michelle Kerscher, of OMA, asked “for this to go through the right channels, not just a knee-jerk reaction.”

“It will increase pedestrian issues, including mopeds and golf carts using the bike lanes,” she told The Sun News.

Council will continue its discussion on the potential change to three lanes in a May 2 meeting. Councilman Mike Lowder also argued that police should focus on more arrests that send troublemakers to jail.

“I don’t think anyone on this council is looking for zero tolerance,” Lowder said. “That’s not what were looking for. But I know me personally, one of the ways we can improve that to some extent is by more aggressive enforcement and more custodial arrests.”

Councilman Wayne Gray said changes are necessary partly because so many more visitors come to the boulevard--a side effect of the city’s attempt to push more events to the times just before or after the busy summer season.

“We need to start probably treating March and April like May, June and July, and like some of our larger events,” Gray said.

He also suggested that the city revisit an expenditure, approved earlier this month, of $207,000 for a police gyrocopter. Gray suggested using the money to better light empty lots.

Myrtle Beach City Council also passed an ordinance on Tuesday that freezes any new moped rentals from operating or expanding, a popular attraction for beachwear stores on the south end of the boulevard.

Gall said that moped riders, especially on Easter weekend, have been weaving through lanes, running red lights and fleeing officers when they’re stopped for traffic offenses. Police have also observed golfcart drivers breaking rules for those vehicles.

David Webber, a resident on the 200 block of S. Ocean Blvd., said that the area is chaotic and and sometimes scary for visitors.

“It is a warzone,” Webber said. “This was a squadron of mopeds. They were flying in formation. They were organized, they were weaving in and out of traffic.”

Myrtle Beach passed an ordinance last year that began to regulate the mopeds, requiring businesses to list the vehicle identification numbers of all of their vehicles with police annually.

“We’re looking at options to reduce those numbers [of rentals],” Pedersen told The Sun News.

But moped rental owner David Stone said he opposed the city stopping him from expanding his business.

“To say we can’t expand as a business hurts us as a family and hurts us as a company,” he said.

Chloe Johnson: 843-626-0381, @_ChloeAJ

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