Myrtle Beach Bike Rallies

Ambassadors see mixed reactions from Bikefest attendees

Allen Parrish flagged down the two women in bright orange T-shirts, the ones that said “community ambassador” on the back.

He wanted to give them a piece of his mind.

A day earlier, the 48-year-old Georgia biker had seen another ambassador welcoming Bikefest attendees as they strolled the sidewalks of Ocean Boulevard in Myrtle Beach. With all the extra police, barricades and new traffic patterns this year, the greetings felt hollow.

“It’s like a slap in the face,” Parrish said Saturday after speaking with the volunteers for more than half an hour. “It’s like somebody saying, ‘You can’t do something, but have a nice day.’ It’s like somebody saying, ‘I’m going to whoop you, but it’s going to hurt me more than it’s going to hurt you.’ That’s what it made me feel like.”

Responses to Myrtle Beach’s ambassadors ranged from those, like Parrish, who are frustrated with the extra police and new Bikefest control tactics, to those appreciative of the warm words from the volunteers.

The ambassador program is part of Myrtle Beach’s efforts to improve safety on Memorial Day weekend, which last year saw three murders on Ocean Boulevard.

In addition to charming visitors, ambassadors try to explain the reasoning behind the city’s approach, including the 23-mile traffic loop that takes effect late at night.

“A couple folks have said to me, ‘It wasn’t the bikers that created the problems [last year]. Why are they blaming the bikers?’ said ambassador Edna Wright.

Her response?

“We recognize that, but it only takes one bad apple to spoil the whole bunch.”

Other attendees complained about the police being too heavy-handed.

Erwin Rembert, who drove down from North Carolina, said an officer told him to move along when he was standing in the parking spot holding his BMW.

“I didn’t have a group of people,” he said. “I was by myself.”

Rembert finds the extra officers and lethargic parade of traffic annoying. The annual Bikefest guest also said the turnout seems lighter and he blames the city’s response for that.

“This is the worst time I’ve ever seen right here,” he said. “Blocking all the roads off and all this loop mess … it’s just too much.”

Some of the bikers remain upset about the sweeping ordinances Myrtle Beach City Council passed in 2008. Those policies, aimed at controlling the rallies, sparked controversy from supporters of both Bikefest and the Harley-Davidson rally typically held earlier in the month.

Around the same time, city officials also created Military Appreciation Days and attempted to rebrand May as a month of patriotic celebrations, the kind that would draw more families to the beach instead of bikers. With this year’s ramped-up response, old frustrations are rekindling.

“They planned for it to fail,” Parrish, a U.S. Army veteran, said. “They don’t want black bike week. They want veterans week. They want predominantly white folks to bring their family down here, sit on this curb and watch a veterans parade and [stuff] like that. Black folks don’t want to see that. We come down to have a little fun break, party, chill out.”

City officials have long said the 2008 policies were designed to rein in the rallies, which outraged residents who, year after year, complained about the traffic, trash, indecent behavior and noise during the events.

Although there’s been disappointment this year, some guests have responded positively to the ambassadors and expressed gratitude for their hellos. Ambassadors have provided directions and answered questions about restaurants. Sometimes they’ve just let folks vent. While most of the exchanges are fleeting, volunteers feel their message is being heard.

“You can see their reactions when you’re just walking down the street and you engage them,” said volunteer Sheri Walton. “Their countenances change. They smile. They talk back.”

Felicia Jones of Atlanta received a white Myrtle Beach bracelet from Wright and Walton as she headed to go parasailing. She appreciated the gesture.

“Thank you,” she told them.

In some ways, the ambassadors are a reincarnation of the “friendship teams” the city established in 1999 to welcome bikers at both the Harley-Davidson and Bikefest rallies. Over the years, officials said participation declined, as did the teams’ influence.

Before Bikefest, some rally supporters took to social media to warn bikers about the ambassadors, saying they would be police informants.

The volunteers contend that isn’t true.

“It wasn’t about seeing and policing anyone,” Wright said. “It’s just about being here and helping out.”

Henry Weston, an 80-year-old retired chef, said he’s certainly not out to snitch on anyone. The longtime Myrtle Beach resident used to volunteer with the friendship teams. He wanted to be an ambassador this year because he enjoys getting out and talking with the visitors. He also said the tourists reciprocate that sentiment.

“It helps the community,” he said. “You live here, you want the community to be treated nice.”

Weston walked the boulevard Friday. On Saturday afternoon, he returned to pace between 21st and 29th avenues North. Overall, he said his interactions were mostly positive.

“Went fine,” he said. “Everybody I talked with was well pleased.”

And as for the traffic congestion?

“It might not be as fast as they want,” Weston said. “But at least they’ll be on the move.”

Another ambassador, Tim Burgess, hopes the volunteers will help change some of the rally goers’ perceptions.

“The appearance may look as if they’re not welcome,” he said. “We want to make them feel welcome.”

Contact CHARLES D. PERRY at 626-0218 or on Twitter @TSN_CharlesPerr.

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