Atlantic Beach Bikefest kicked off Friday with a different vibe for those who have attended in past years, and for some, the planned traffic pattern and 23-mile loop was news to them.
Police, wearing a camouflage rainbow of colors from various departments throughout the state and local area, patrolled Ocean Boulevard by foot, bikes, motorcycles and unmarked cars to ensure visitors were abiding by laws and local rules set to keep traffic flowing.
Myrtle Beach police spokesman Lt. Joey Crosby said as of Friday evening he did not yet know how visitors were reacting to the new traffic patterns.
Officials said establishing a loop, in effect nightly Friday, Saturday and Sunday from 10 p.m. to 2 a.m., is aimed at keeping traffic moving, because congestion leads to “parking lot parties” that could lead to violence.
The loop routes drivers from 29th Avenue North in Myrtle Beach on Ocean Boulevard south and around to Kings Highway, north to Harrelson Boulevard – which turns into George Bishop Parkway – west to Waccamaw Boulevard, which runs next to U.S. 501, onto S.C. 31 heading north to Grissom Parkway south, then onto U.S. 17 Bypass and down 29th Avenue North.
The loop had not yet gone into effect by The Sun News’ print deadline.
Bike racks line both sides of Ocean Boulevard, which city officials said is to keep pedestrians separate from vehicular traffic.
“But we’ve had no major events,” Crosby said about 7:30 p.m. “I think that speaks for itself.”
About 500 officers have joined Myrtle Beach’s force of about 220 officers patrolling this weekend. Officers assisting the city include 280 state officers, 160 officers from about 45 city and county jurisdictions, 39 constables and 14 federal agents.
Myrtle Beach also has hired 170 private security officers to assist with the 23-mile traffic loop.
Beautiful weather brought droves of people out along Ocean Boulevard on Friday afternoon and early evening. Some say changes made to Bikefest, which were largely driven by three deaths and additional violence last year, set a different tone this year.
Kim Smith, who said she was attending her third Bikefest in Myrtle Beach, said the vibe was totally different this year.
“The cops are more alert than last year,” she said. “There are a lot more cops here. They had to have pulled officers from other areas.”
Smith said she didn’t feel unsafe last year and that the increased police present didn’t make her feel any safer.
Smith, who is from the Washington, D.C., area said she was upset when she saw a man in a car get ticketed for doing a burnout. She said she didn’t know it was illegal.
“Seeing that really bothered me,” she said. “I’m from D.C. and with everything that happened in Baltimore ... it’s definitely more tense. And you can tell the police are more alert because they know that people are rebelling if they do something wrong.”
Christine Medicus of Journey Church volunteered from 4 to 8 p.m. at the tent set up on the former Myrtle Beach Pavilion property during what a group from the Christian community is calling 60 hours of prayer. She said no one came over to the tent while she was volunteering.
“I wish more people came over,” she said. “But we’ve been praying from afar. That’s really what this all was about. Praying for peace this weekend.”
The increased police presence and one-way traffic on Ocean Boulevard imposed only for Bikefest seemed biased to Swail Walker, a biker from Olanta. Myrtle Beach did not create a traffic loop for the Harley Davidson spring rally earlier this month.
“They say it’s not meant to feel biased, but it does,” Walker said. “It’s not fun to ride because you’re just sitting here.”
However, the increased police force seemed more lenient this year than in years past, Walker said. He said there were less flashing blue lights and ticket writing than he’s seen before.
He’s still cautious about the weekend, though.
“Everybody is happy to be around each other, but they’ve got game wardens out here,” Walker said.
Increased police presence isn’t the only thing keeping the boardwalk calm this year, according to Deb Causey, vice president of Chapter 40 Motorcycle Ministry.
“We’re loving the bikers more and we’re showing them that we’re welcoming,” she said. “There’s something different in the air – something more peaceful.”
Causey and about 100 other people gathered Thursday night to pray over this weekend and show unity to visiting bikers. The group will maintain a tent across from the former Pavilion to welcome riders and pray over the area.
“I think last year was the climax that made everybody step back and look at things differently,” said Yvonne Ward, Chapter 40 member. “Everyone is being friendlier this year.”
The change of attitude has gone a long way in welcoming Bikefest participants, Causey said.
“There’s so many people that want to do more positive and be more welcoming,” she said. “Even though there’s more police this year, everyone’s outlook is different.”
A change of outlook includes smiling more, answering questions and handing out traffic loop information, especially for the Myrtle Beach city ambassadors, who volunteered to greet visitors this weekend.
Monika Newman, a city ambassador, was hanging out in front of Ripley’s Believe it or Not. She said tourists reacted positively all afternoon to the ambassadors.
“I think we’re appreciated because if you’re new to the city and you don’t know where to go or what to do, we can help,” she said. “People appreciate that we smile and answer questions and give compliments.”
Some drivers who opted to try and drive northbound down Ocean Boulevard, which had been pre-marked as southbound traffic only, were pulled over by motorcycle police officers who sometimes shared a laugh with the driver and allowed them to turn around. The same turn-around scene was seen along Ocean Boulevard as eastbound traffic from Kings Highway was re-directed back to Kings because of barricades set by local law enforcement.
Echoes of revved engines filtered onto the boulevard from nearby parking garages. Female visitors on the south end of Ocean Boulevard walked the sidewalks in mostly bikini bottoms with mesh tops and guys were shirtless or in simple tank tops as the crowd enjoyed the low-70s weather near dusk.
Loud music often played from vehicles traveling slower-than-usual down Ocean Boulevard, prompting those on the sidewalks to often sing along to some of the more popular hits.
Several in the crowd were unaware of the 23-mile traffic loop.
Sherise Richardson of Greenville came to Myrtle Beach for the weekend with her sister. The women planned the trip late last year and knew nothing about the hoopla surrounding the weekend.
“I’m just happy for this weather,” Richardson said. “I don’t read into a lot of media hype, so I don’t think we would have changed our plans. We just wanted to get in a vacation before summer started… So far, this has been great.”
Terrance Hughes of Atlanta said he just recently heard about some of the past activities by hearing it on the news and asking other people about it.
“We always come here to Myrtle Beach, even as a kid,” Hughes said of him and his family. “I ain’t never had any problems before and I’m sure I won’t now.”
Hughes said he thinks the loop and controlled traffic patterns were good ideas.
“These guys know what problems they’ve had in the past,” Hughes said of police. “If they feel everyone will be safer by making them go in circles, then make them go in circles. It’s not bothering me.”
James Glancey of Wilmington, N.C., said he was aggravated when he tried to get back to his hotel at 14th Avenue South and Ocean Boulevard after lunch Friday.
“It was like a damn maze,” Glancey said. “If you’re going to block off a popular road, use more signs. Tell us who are not from here to go to the next stop light or something. Every time I turned down a street, it was a gamble if we’d get back to our room.”
Hank Smith, a local resident who was helping a friend out at an airbrush store at Ocean Boulevard and Eighth Avenue North, said it was a shame that the police seem to have run the crowd off this year.
“Look at this,” he said pointing to the sidewalk. “The sidewalk should be full of people right here. They ran all of the motorcyclists off. Look around. Do you see any?”
He said the pedestrian barricades were hurting the businesses.
“I understand having one lane for emergency vehicles,” he said. “But these barricades are just unnecessary.”