Coming to Myrtle Beach has always been a discretionary decision based on a favorable or unfavorable impression of this resort. Thirty-two years ago, the City Council decided it wanted to ensure a favorable impression and didn't want the "tacky" helter-skelter streetscape or the uncontrolled honky-tonk atmosphere that existed outside our city limits.
The City Council and the community believed that visitors and residents have a right to be protected form the visual blight and view-interference of large flashing, blinking signs that detract from the area's natural beauty and its original assets as an oceanfront resort.
"Sign warfare" is the understandable practice utilized by many businesses to erect larger, taller, brighter, flashier signs than their neighbors so as to gain a competitive edge. Neighbor No. 2 responds quite logically with an even bigger, brighter, flashier sign to respond and get his competitive edge over Neighbor No. 1. Neighbor No. 3. gets into the competition, and the mushrooming blight starts to grow in a pernicious, cancerous way where signs, billboards and advertising dominated the landscape. The only victor in this contest is the sign manufacturers. The losers are the tourists and the permanent residents. Sign warfare is natural in a rapidly developing and competitive resort where there are no community guidelines for their containment. Just look outside the city limits.
Unfortunately, the sign industry cannot regulate itself. It is left to the community and elected officials who must undertake this, and it is their obligation to do so. Failure to do so creates the visual havoc that one sees along Restaurant Row, for example.
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City Council's current deliberation of the changeable copy ordinance sits right in the middle of this debate. The notion of digital billboards is simply a technical lynching of Myrtle Beach's 30-plus-year program to curtail signs. The New York Times and USA Today have carried articles blasting the concept of these "TVs on a stick" primarily for reasons of safety, not to mention the aesthetics. The proposal effectively inserts a bright, blinking, animated TV screen in place of the changeable copy message letters that are on many of our business identification signs.
With our land ownership patterns being so fragmented, it is possible to see these things lined up along the street in Myrtle Beach by the hundreds. Picture that!
Digital billboards are for advertising, not business identification. The manual changeable copy boards are already a nuisance. They don't identify businesses; they merely offer a platform for cute little sayings like "Come in and eat so we both don't starve," "Five T-Shirts for the price of one," shark tooth necklaces, American-owned, $2 vodka, henna tattoos, etc.
Digital billboards have already been banned in many states and cities for safety reasons. The bright flashing messages will spill over into residential areas, and there are no sensible ways to regulate them. The presence of these devices will turn our highways into visual arcades.
The City Council has done an exemplary job as stewards of the community. Projects such as The Market Common, the beach boardwalk, Doug Shaw Stadium, burying power lines, landscaping, Grand Park and the convention center hotel - all are just some of the testimonials to their wisdom and leadership. This vital issue requires the same wisdom.
As we look forward to the next 20 years through the city's new comprehensive plan, let us not neglect the history of the past 32 years and the efforts made to clean up our city and prevent these digital billboards or TVs on a stick.
If we don't stop this before it starts, the cat will be out of the bag and all of our commercial highways will ultimately be filled with cancerous flashing lights and videos. Then our highways will indeed become visual arcades. If that happens, we might as well change our name from Myrtle Beach to Myrtle Sign.
The writer is president of Winchester Land & Development Corp. He was Myrtle Beach city manager for 1975-80.