Could pedestrian-only zones come to Ocean Boulevard?

Pedestrians are reflected in a store front window between Ninth Avenue and Mr. Joe White Boulevard in Myrtle Beach on Wednesday.
Pedestrians are reflected in a store front window between Ninth Avenue and Mr. Joe White Boulevard in Myrtle Beach on Wednesday. jlee@thesunnews.com

An old idea became new again this week, as some in Myrtle Beach are calling to close part of Ocean Boulevard at night and create a pedestrian zone.

Chuck Martino, chairman of the Downtown Redevelopment Corp., and Larry Bond, a local restauranteur, both argued for the idea Tuesday as city council discussed several options to change the atmosphere of Ocean Boulevard.

Several shootings in April have caused the panel to take a closer look at the boulevard and the environment there.

Martino suggested closing the area from Ninth Avenue North to Mr. Joe White Avenue starting at 5 p.m., leaving space for restaurants to put out tables and chairs and vendors to sell goods.

“You start to create that pedestrian feel out there in an engaging way,” he said Tuesday.

Bond, who owns The Chemist, Gordo’s Tacos and Tequila and Art Burger, also is a proponent of the plan.

“We could turn it into like a Lincoln Road,” Bond told The Sun News, referring to the street in Miami that is closed to cars and features several outdoor dining locations. “Now you’re a real destination for mixed use. People are going to come there, locals-— you and I would go hang out there.”

But some shops in the area say closing Ocean Boulevard would be detrimental.

Michelle Kerscher, of the gay Dolphin Gift Cove and the Oceanfront Merchants Association, said the move would snarl traffic in the busy downtown district.

“It’s nice to look at these cities that have these closed streets that are pretty, with this outdoor dining surrounding it, but Myrtle Beach does not allow you to do that because the buildings by the ocean need emergency vehicle access,” she said.

The closure would create other problems for the shops there, she said, which rely on customers to drive by and recognize the store there before parking and going in.

“You completely eliminate that ability to drive down here and see whats going on,” she said.

Councilman Mike Lowder, who often is skeptical of closing roads for special events, also said Tuesday that he was concerned about the traffic impact.

“The question becomes what do you do with the traffic?” Lowder said at city council’s meeting. “Where you would would actually be dumping that traffic off the boulevard into is maybe one of the most problematic areas we have in the city.”

But proponents say that when U.S. 501 is realigned into Seventh Avenue North, traffic in the area could be alleviated.

Bond and Martino said that the closure would serve foot traffic. Bond also said that the “cruisers” who prefer an uninterrupted ride down the boulevard, don’t stop and patronize businesses anyway.

“They’re just afraid of change,” Bond said of other shops that have protested. “[If you] do business the way our fathers and grandfathers do business, you’ll be swallowed up.”

Kerscher said that in past events where the boulevard was closed to cars, such as St. Patrick’s Day and Oktoberfest festivals, merchants have reported significant declines in revenue.

“The only way that we would be willing … is to do it in October or April, not a time period where we depend on, where if you lose one day, it’s like losing the month of January,” Kerscher said.

The long-discussed idea is still a ways off, Martino told city council Tuesday. And elected officials said they were hesitant to move forward with such a proposal without buy-in from the shop owners.

Mayor John Rhodes said he’s in favor of the idea. “It was my idea several years ago and you would have thought I was committing a crime,” he said Tuesday. “My God, they went crazy.”

But, Rhodes said, “They’re not ready for it now, but I think it’s inevitable.”

Chloe Johnson: 843-626-0381, @_ChloeAJ