On Saturday evenings around 4:50 p.m., people start lining up in Downtown Conway for the Rivertown Bistro. The restaurant offers patrons a high-end dining experience, serving up nationally praised dishes.
The Bistro serves craft beer, locally sourced food and has all the other makings of a popular stop for foodies.
It also shows a changing downtown Conway.
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To the millions of tourists who visit the Grand Strand area every year, Conway is the town along U.S. 501 before you hit the beach. But that could change as places like the Bistro and The Trestle Bakery are giving people more reasons to visit the downtown.
As it stands, Conway is already growing fast. In the areas surrounding the City of Conway, Horry County development maps say about 4,000 new homes could be built based off currently approved housing projects.
More people moving into the area does not necessarily mean that tourism will follow, but Conway’s historic riverfront has potential to draw in out-of-towners visiting the Grand Strand.
“That is the goal, and to connect the downtown with the riverfront,” said Mary Catherine Hyman, who leads the City of Conway planning department.
Conway is also home to an opportunity zone, a federal initiative from the Trump Administration to spur local business. And the city has plans to capitalize on its riverfront and its booming growth.
In recent years, historic cities along rivers have been crafting master plans to make their river fronts economic centers. In May of 2018, The Charleston Post and Courier reported that North Charleston was beginning plans to turn its riverfront into a downtown area. Farther north, Greenville is an example of a riverfront development done well, as its downtown now receives national attention for its parks and growing economy.
For most of Conway’s history, the Waccamaw River was its economic driver. During the 1840s, Wilmington, North Carolina newspapers captured the commerce happening in the city. The articles tracked the items coming to the area: corn, steam engine parts, and, unfortunately, slaves. The locals were exporting timber, turpentine and tobacco.
Tripp Nealy, who is rebuilding the Lower Warehouse, said Conway’s history excites him. His plans for the historic Jerry Cox Warehouse make sure that the buildings’ past is well remembered.
“I am so excited about it,” he said. “I don’t want to see one board thrown away.”
A 2017 strategic plan would turn take the historic past of the city and incorporate it into a quaint downtown, putting the municipality more on the map for tourists in the area. The plan aims to give the historic buildings, many built because of the river, new life.
Many parts of the project, like lightening alleyways and downtown green spaces, are already under construction. Downtown alleys now have stringed lighting, seating areas and places to park bikes. These improvements, like the Norman Street alleyway, are happening now, but a lot is still to be done.
“It’s becoming a lot more attractive to the younger generation,” Conway spokeswoman Taylor Newell said.
Mockups of future development in the master plan show street-side cafes, better bike paths and parking and a new town center, one of the few new buildings to be built.
Future plans hope to extend the Conway Riverfront, a scenic walk similar to the Murrells Inlet Marshwalk. Currently the riverwalk starts near the intersection of Laurel Street and Elm Street, running up to Kingston Street. The current plans for extension would move it up farther along Kingston Street, allowing for more space for development, notably for an apartment complex.
The planned apartment or residential complex is currently at a snag but there is zoning along the waterfront for one to be completed. The area just up-river from Bonfire restaurant is currently zoned to have some kind of living quarters built there. Technically shovels could break ground soon after a developer gets on board.
Housing is an issue the downtown Conway area still faces. A draw to bring people into an urban area is the ability to walk from an apartment to the downtown establishments. As it stands, there are no major apartment complexes in the downtown area, only houses.
Hyman said that the apartment complex’s original developer died, but the land is for sale. Once it has a buyer, a builder will still have to appear before the community appearance board for the design building.
The Lower Warehouse in Conway is a monument to the old life of Conway, with the history built into the wood, Nealy said. Once opened, the building will join other waterfront restaurants Bonfire and the Oceans Fish Market. At this time, Nearly is not certain if he will open the restaurant himself or contract it out.
The Shine Cafe is making a restaurant out of a historic home in Conway that was built during the beginning of the 20th century. Located slightly outside of the downtown area, the house was built by one of the first female architects in the United States. The restaurant received special tax help from the Horry County Architectural Review Board, which helps promote restoration projects.
Vice-chair of the board Jamie Thompkins said that Shine owner Leslie Wilson’s work restoring the home was as an example of how the special tax credit can be used.
Newell said not all of the new places to eat in Conway will have brick-and-mortar stores. The city has been updating ordinances to allow for food trucks too.
Kingston Park next to Rivertown Park is up next in the downtown plan. It will have a water feature and a new mural.
Conway is changing and both Hyman and Newell said the city has noticed an increase in downtown traffic. Newell said she is seeing more young people, especially Coastal Carolina University students, coming to downtown Conway.
“We’re encouraging businesses to open in older buildings,” Newell said. “We’re always going to be a historic rivertown and we want to preserve that.”