Myrtle Beach metro area again one of the fastest-growing in the country

A view of the Palmetto Pointe Boulevard area off U.S. 17 Bypass from the air in March 2015. According to the latest U.S. Census figures, the Myrtle Beach area is the second fastest growing area in the country. Photo by Janet Blackmon Morgan / jblackmon@thesunnews.com
A view of the Palmetto Pointe Boulevard area off U.S. 17 Bypass from the air in March 2015. According to the latest U.S. Census figures, the Myrtle Beach area is the second fastest growing area in the country. Photo by Janet Blackmon Morgan / jblackmon@thesunnews.com The Sun News file photo

The Myrtle Beach metropolitan area held its place as the second-fastest growing in the U.S. from 2014 to 2015, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, and while area officials see that as a good thing, they also say that keeping pace with infrastructure and services can be a challenge.

The two-county area grew to about 430,000 residents, with Horry County eclipsing the 300,000 mark for the first time. Brunswick County, N.C., the metro area’s other component, grew to more than 120,000 people, according to the Census Bureau’s 3.5 percent growth rate through half of 2015 and its 2014 population estimate for the county. The Census Bureau released the growth statistics Thursday.

All the new residents bring the need for new and expanded roads, more public safety personnel, equipment and facilities, new water and sewer lines and more parks and recreational offerings. They also bring with them new retailers attracted by the fast-growing population that add to the Grand Strand’s considerable shopping, dining and entertainment venues.

“While outpacing the national growth is an accolade,” said Brad Dean, CEO of the Myrtle Beach Area Chamber of Commerce, “it does present interesting challenges.”

One of those is roads, and Horry County has embarked on an effort for Ride III, a nearly $600 million plan that would see significant work on U.S. 501 from S.C. 31 to Conway and on Carolina Forest Boulevard.

Eddie Dyer, Ride III chairman, said the region has nearly $2 billion in identified road needs, but neither he nor others think the public would support tripling the one-cent tax to handle it all at once. But Dyer and others also note that the road-financing field has changed considerably since Horry County launched Ride I, with financial help from the state plummeting from $600 million in the initial $1.1 billion plan to just $10 million for this year. Now, expensive road construction must be funded locally, and they are hoping voters will approve it in a November referendum.

“People need to understand there is no Plan B,” Dyer said. “We either do it ourselves or it doesn’t get done.”

Horry County Council Chairman Mark Lazarus said that fast growth tends to bring many road needs to any area where it’s occurring.

“We might not be ahead of the curve,” he said, “but (with continued significant local funding) we’re doing better than most areas.”

Myrtle Beach Mayor John Rhodes said the need for roads, public safety expansion and water and sewer lines are things that can’t be ignored by well-run governments. He agreed that given the cost of each and the seeming immediacy of the need, they can push quality of life needs such as recreation to a lower position on the priority list.

“Police, fire and water and sewer will always take precedence,” Rhodes said.

But given considerable expansion in parks and recreation as well as burgeoning bike/hike paths over the past decade in Myrtle Beach, North Myrtle Beach and Horry County, it would be unfair to say that local officials have put them on the back burner.

North Myrtle Beach, for instance, invested heavily to build its park and sports complex at 31 and Robert Edge Parkway, a facility that helped the city to see $31 million in sports tourism revenue in the last year. Even now, said city spokesman Pat Dowling, the city is looking for land to expand the park at the same time as it is addressing the need to update its stormwater infrastructure and look at major beach renourishment needed in the Cherry Grove area.

The park not only allows North Myrtle Beach a big share in the area’s huge sports tourism market, but it gives the city the facilities to provide for a growing need for adult soccer, baseball and football fields. It has further given the rec department’s sports teams available practice space and time, something that was in short supply before the park opened, Dowling said.

The growth has also created a demand for a performing arts center to provide different kinds of arts events than what is traditionally found among the area’s privately-owned theaters.

Realtor Penny Boling, who leads the group pushing for the center in Myrtle Beach, said businesses and individuals considering a move to the area increasingly ask about its cultural offerings.

While growth will continue to bring challenges, Rhodes, Lazarus and others said the area will continue to attract new residents because of its natural beauty, low taxes and relatively low cost of living.

Recently, the major growth has come from retirees, according to Census Bureau figures.

People aged 65 and over made up 17.1 percent of the total Horry County population in 2010 -- 21.4 percent in Brunswick County. By 2014, the most recent year for which figures were available, that share had grown to 20.5 percent in Horry and 27 percent in Brunswick.

At the same time the share of the population aged 18 and under shrunk by 0.8 percent in Horry and 1.6 percent in Brunswick. This does not mean there was or will be a decline in the number of youths, as evidenced by the multi-year school-building plan recently undertaken by Horry County Schools. It means just that the growth on the older end has made the numbers on the younger end a smaller proportion of the total.

While Horry’s growth rate is mostly a matter of local pride, the actual numbers of people moving here pale in comparison to others on the Census Bureau’s top 20 metro growth areas. While the Myrtle Beach metro area achieved its ranking by adding about 14,000 residents from mid-2014 to mid-2015, the Houston, Texas metro area -- 18th on the list with a 2.4 percent growth rate -- added 159,000 new residents in the same 12 months, according to the Census Bureau. Raleigh, N.C., came in 16th with a 2.5 percent growth rate and 25,000 new residents.

The Villages, Fla., a metro area near Orlando, was between 2014 and 2015 the fastest-growing metro area in the nation for the third year in a row with 4.5 percent growth, according to the Census. Cape Coral-Fort Myers, Fla., fell behind Myrtle Beach with 3.3 percent growth, a rate that was equaled by Midland and Odessa, Texas.

The Charleston metro area (2.4 percent growth) and Bluffton-Hilton Head Island metro area (2.6 percent growth) were the other two in South Carolina to make the top 20 growth list. The Hilton Head area came in 12th on the list, the Census Bureau reported, while Charleston-North Charleston ranked 19th.

Texas and Florida each had five metro areas on the list. Utah, the fourth state with multiple listings in the top 20, had two metro areas that made the list.

The Census Bureau’s 2015 population estimates for individual counties will be reported later this year.