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Boardwalk buoys business in Myrtle Beach

Marvin McHone has a problem with Myrtle Beach's new boardwalk.

The issue? His oceanfront restaurant, Marvin's, is so busy this summer, he and his staff have had to "scramble to get a handle on it."

"It's a beautiful problem to have," McHone said. "I said for years that a boardwalk would increase my business, but I had no idea it would increase by this much. I'm up 50 to 60 percent over the same time last year."

The city took a leap of faith when it sunk $6 million into the project amid one of the country's deepest economic troughs.

But many people say the leap paid off.

Restaurant sales are not the only measure of success:

Downtown parking revenue is up 13 percent over the same time last year, and parking rates have not increased.

In the Downtown Redevelopment Corp.'s daily surveys of people on the boardwalk, people's rating of the facility averages 4.5 on a scale of one to five.

There's a flurry of new investment because of the boardwalk: the Collins family's $7.5 million redevelopment at the Second Avenue Pier; the owner of Dirty Don's invested $275,000 to convert the space he needed for his new restaurant, said redevelopment agency Executive Director David Sebok; and the planned 187-foot-tall, multi-million-dollar Ferris wheel scheduled to open next summer near Plyler Park.

Vacancies along the boardwalk are nonexistent, said redevelopment agency Executive Assistant Koribrett Turner-Vaught. An empty garage next to The Bowery is now a coffee shop, Dirty Don's is new and the Gay Dolphin Arcade, which had opened several small spaces for retail, is full now, she said. And eight boardwalk-area restaurants have opened sidewalk cafes.

The boardwalk has attracted national attention, has been featured on several TV programs and websites, and this week, National Geographic named Myrtle Beach's promenade the country's No. 3 boardwalk, right behind two of the country's oldest and most famous oceanfront walks - Coney Island and Atlantic City - and far ahead of other famous attractions in Virginia Beach, Va.; Santa Cruz, Ca.; Ocean City, Md.; and Wildwood, N.J.

"That's an amazing accolade," Sebok said. "Those boardwalks have existed for 100 years or more and their cities are many, many times larger than Myrtle Beach, and we're brand new. To be ranked up there with those big boys is pretty impressive."

Just the beginning

Myrtle Beach Area Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Brad Dean said the value of publicity surrounding the boardwalk could exceed $1 million, and not just for downtown Myrtle Beach.

"It could be a publicity gift that keeps on giving well beyond 2010," he said. "While most of the publicity generated by the boardwalk thus far has centered on the boardwalk as a tourism attraction, we've also identified interest in this project as an economic development story."

City spokesman Mark Kruea said the city is surprised and pleased by how fast the boardwalk has gained attention.

Sebok attributes part of the interest in the new boardwalk to its unique design, with the northern elevated portion through the dunes, the traditional section in the middle and the south end's beach-level paths. He said Myrtle Beach's boardwalk isn't like any other.

He said data being gathered for an end-of-season report will show more about the boardwalk's value, as will next year's business-license revenue, which he expects will be higher than this year's.

Some said the flurry of activity and attention has been positively overwhelming.

Russ Stalvey, owner of the Ocean Front Bar and Grill, didn't want to disclose numbers or percentages, but said "business is a lot better than ever - exponentially better - even better than before the Pavilion was torn down."

"When they cut the construction tape in April [the unofficial boardwalk opening], it really started something," McHone said. "July had been getting stronger every year, but this year, we're going to shatter records. For this year, we're just going to do what we're doing, and when things quiet down - in late October - we'll talk about how to prepare for next year."

Stalvey said this Fourth of July was the best one his restaurant had seen in the 60 years his family has owned it and Peaches Corner.

Michelle and Randy Jackson of Richmond, Ky., haven't been to Myrtle Beach since 2008 and didn't know the city was building a boardwalk.

"I think this is great," Randy Jackson said as he and his wife left the new Pier House restaurant earlier this week. "They've done it right."

Michelle Jackson agreed, saying she and her husband had walked the entire 1.2-mile promenade several times, enjoying the ocean view, the landscaping, the shops in the center and the people.

"It looks like the city really invested in this," she said.

They said they have mainly vacationed in Florida in the past, but this visit changed their minds.

"We like it better here, now," Randy Jackson said.

Sebok said he is proud when he looks at the boardwalk, which he tries to visit nearly every day.

"We're just at the beginning of seeing what the boardwalk and the downtown district will be able to accomplish," Sebok said.

Safety in numbers

Though the city budget this year did not allow the planned hiring of more police officers to have a dedicated boardwalk patrol, many people say they've never felt safer in downtown Myrtle Beach.

"There isn't a time I would hesitate to take my daughter out there," Stalvey said, "and she's 9 months old."

McHone said officers are "around all the time," though he and other merchants are always keeping their eyes open for trouble, too.

"If it's within sight of my business," he said, "it is my business."

Myrtle Beach Police Department Capt. David Knipes said he knew of no serious incidents on the boardwalk.

Police records between May 1 and July 15 show that there were 40 calls, referrals or officer-initiated contacts on the boardwalk.

Twenty of them were officers checking on businesses. Four were for fights, disorderly conduct or domestic disputes. Five involved intoxication, with two of those being for minors in possession of alcohol. One call was narcotics related, two were people reporting finding lost property, one was a suspicious person, one was for vandalism, one was a traffic offense and one was for a missing person report. One was a trespassing call, one was a park-ordinance violation, one was for violating solicitation laws and one was an officer assisting someone.

Mildred Williams watches over the section of the boardwalk near her hotel, Holiday Sands Resort.

Williams is something of a mother hen to the teenage girls who sell frozen treats at the Ricciardi's Italian Ice vending cart at the Fourth Avenue North street end, which is between the two towers of her hotel.

"She watches over everything," said Ed Ricciardi, owner of the frozen-treat cart. "She loves the girls and likes to make sure they are doing OK out there."

Ricciardi's cart sells Italian ice until 11 p.m., but he said sometimes business is so brisk all evening, the girls who run the carts stay until 11:30.

Treat seller Chelsea Long said the boardwalk is well lit and there are enough people that she doesn't feel unsafe.

Plus, she said, the police look out for her and the other clerks - when Williams isn't around to take care of them.

Bumpy road

Getting the city's new icon built took a long time, and the road wasn't always smooth.

Though the city's 1999 Pavilion Area Master Plan always called for a boardwalk or oceanfront path, Sebok said it wasn't a priority for the first few years. Other projects, such as placing utility lines on Ocean Boulevard underground, took precedence.

After The Myrtle Beach Pavilion Amusement Park was torn down in 2007, the Oceanfront Merchants Association formed and launched the Hot Summer Nights summer entertainment program, and Sebok said that's when his passion for advocating the boardwalk grew.

"I felt it would be something that could enhance nearly the entire downtown district," he said.

But some city officials questioned spending the then-estimated $12 million on the project and the multi-pronged funding plans for construction.

"I think council's concern was about overburdening the commercial property taxpayers downtown," said Councilman Phil Render, who was also concerned about "amorphous" cost estimates.

"Not everyone was in step on how to pay for the project," Councilman Wayne Gray said. "We were in the height of the economy - every time you turned around, costs for projects were escalating by 10 or 20 percent. And several of us were also going through the thought process of 'if you have $10 [million] or $15 million to invest down there, is the boardwalk the best place to start?'"

The questions weren't limited to city leaders, either. While the business and property owners along what's not the center section were always in favor, Sebok said, others, mainly hotel and condo owners, were not.

"They worried about security, and they worried that they were going to lose the use of portions of their property," he said.

Since the boardwalk opened, he said, he has had calls from nearly all of the plan's early detractors saying they were wrong and telling him how much hotel guests enjoy the boardwalk or just people watching as they lounge poolside.

By the time the city got serious about building the boardwalk, the national economy had taken a nosedive. The city also passed a controversial set of regulations and amendments designed to quell the May motorcycle rallies, angering many and pushing away a large source of revenue for some downtown merchants. The City Council had also OK'd a controversial 1-cent sales tax to fund the chamber's enhanced efforts at out-of-town advertising.

But it's because of that tax and the economic slump that the boardwalk was built.

The estimated $14 million to $18 million in annual revenue from the sales tax means the chamber can refund the city about $850,000 in local accommodations tax revenue annually. The city uses that money to leverage bonds for the boardwalk and didn't need a municipal improvement district.

And because so many construction companies in the area were scrambling for work amid the building slump, boardwalk bids came in at a surprising 50 cents on the estimated boardwalk dollar.

Promenade work finished a little ahead of schedule and the amenity opened in April, though people had already been trying to use it before the construction company had turned it over to the city.

"The boardwalk's success seems to be greater than we ever expected," Gray said.

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