Ocean Boulevard merchants are squarely in the spotlight as Myrtle Beach decides how best to stem violence after a string of recent shootings.
Starting on April 15, eight incidents with guns were reported in one week, and police have said some of the shootings were connected. City officials and shop owners alike agree that more police could help the rowdy central section of the city’s shore-side thoroughfare.
Some officials, including City Manager John Pedersen, suggested that the culture there needs to be changed in other ways.
“Long-term, the best solution is to change the atmosphere, to revitalize the area. But some of that’s going to be some relatively small things. It’s not illegal, but it certainly contributes to the atmosphere when you go down there and you can buy things that can be used as drug paraphernalia. You can buy things that are smutty T-shirts, you can buy smutty shorts, you can buy things that are weapons,” Pedersen said in a meeting Tuesday.
But shopkeepers said more police — another priority of the city — would be most effective.
Sasha Keldo, a manager at Bargain Beachwear near Ripley’s Believe it or Not! Odditorium at the intersection of 9th Avenue North and Ocean Boulevard, said the environment that’s causing fights and violence is out on the streets, not in her store.
“I don’t think that the shootings or whatever happened are affected by the store at all,” Keldo said.
She said that fights erupt from a chaotic environment outside, filled with loud music and people openly smoking marijuana. Inside, the shop sells knives, pipes and trinkets like small glass jars emblazoned with “my stash.”
That corner, Keldo said, is a hot spot for fights.
“I run to my car from all of them,” she said, adding that more uniformed officers need to be on the boulevard.
Next door, Jeff Rogers is working in a henna tattoo shop while he stays in the area for a few months, visiting family. After painting a rosary on the hand of a woman with sea-green nails for $27, he said that the strip has changed significantly from his last visit in 1999.
Then, he said, the area was filled with children whose parents let walk the boulevard by themselves. Now, he called it “ghetto.”
“[Myrtle Beach] is getting a name for the wrong type of party,” Rogers said. “There’s a lack of police presence.”
He even said that the wall of glass pipes in the back of his shop should be covered by the owner, because it discourages the children and families that are his main customers.
Others said that police were necessary, but in a subtler sense.
Rob Mack, who’s worked at the Welcome Center next door for two years, said undercover cops could catch criminals in the act.
“The cops want to ride up and down the boulevard like the cavalry of old in their marked cars, and everybody runs back in their rat holes,” he said.
Discussion about the boulevard’s shops is not a new one, Councilman Wayne Gray told The Sun News. He’s said that elected officials need to speak with business owners and other stakeholders directly to figure out a solution.
In terms of whether the city has a place in discouraging certain businesses, Gray said, “That’s a challenging thing. What I view as maybe being distasteful may not be, obviously, what someone else views.”
But, he said, “We’ve battled that for 30 years...we’ve battled the city trying to regulate the sale of clothing material or paraphernalia or knick-knacks that...are bought by people that may be trying to perpetrate crimes.”
Another option suggested Tuesday by Pedersen, the city manager, was converting Ocean Boulevard from 9th Avenue North to 14th Avenue North to three lanes, including a center turn lane.
But shops in the area have long opposed that change.
“We’ve tried this before, and it didn’t work,” said Buzz Plyler, owner of the Gay Dolphin Gift Cove. “The traffic backs up.”
The change would also impede deliveries, he said, like the 11 pallets the shop received on Wednesday.
“There’s not nearly enough room in the center [lane] for all the trucks,” he said.
City Councilman Randal Wallace said he would oppose the traffic change, and that he didn’t think it would affect safety to change traffic.
“Everybody knows what a hot button issue that is for that part of town,” he said.
City council will consider the traffic change further in a meeting on Tuesday.
So far, city council has only taken concrete action on one item: freezing the number of moped rentals in the city.
On Easter weekend, visitors flooded the boulevard, weaving in and out of traffic on mopeds and often riding in bicycle lanes or on the sidewalk. City officials, including the planning commission, will study the moped rentals in the coming months.
Pedersen has said he wants to reduce the number of mopeds available for rent in the city.
Ben Robinson owns several moped rentals. His businesses total about 350 vehicles, including golf carts, available for rent, and he said he’s contacted a lawyer to challenge the legality of any restrictions passed by the city.
“They’re trying to get rid of the mayhem that comes with Memorial [Day] weekend and Bike Week,” Robinson said. “I want it to go away too, but not at the expense of the law.”
He said he’s tried to suggest other options—his shop can trace renters back to vehicles that get ticketed for traffic violations, and he has the ability to turn off any moped remotely.
Police Chief Warren Gall said Tuesday it can be difficult for officers to catch offenders on mopeds, who drive recklessly and often speed away from police.
Robinson put it differently.
“They’re just too damn lazy to write the ticket,” he said.
Wallace and Gray said they’re open to hearing suggestions from business owners to fix the issue of problem moped drivers or the environment of recent crime.
But Wallace also saw moped drivers weaving in and out of traffic on Easter weekend.
“I can remember Friday night, before anything happened, bragging on my social media at the enormity of the crowd,” Wallace said. “I was like wow, this is a home run.”
But that weekend ended in violence.
“With the good, comes the bad,” Wallace said. “We’ve got to find a way to send that message that if you want to come here and cause trouble, we don’t want you.”