U.S. 501 | Debris-ridden gateway to Myrtle Beach

Billboards. Broken trees. Litter.

The linear asphalt ocean that is U.S. 501 is most people's introduction to the Myrtle Beach area, and the first impression isn't great.

Aesthetics are a key factor in how engaged people feel in their communities, according to the Knight Foundation's Soul of the Community study.

People in the Myrtle Beach area generally rated the community's appearance high, thanks to the ocean and beach-front areas, but there are some problem spots and U.S. 501 is one of them.

The road's traffic-clogged and generally unattractive ambience could be the reason some residents shun it all together and don't feel engaged enough to stage cleanup or beautification efforts.

Will Lockamy said he and his wife, Shirley, generally use S.C. 31 to get around the area.

"We avoid 501 as much as possible," he said.

But a new organization is just getting up and running to try to engage and inform the public about litter on Horry County roads like U.S. 501.

"I've been behind to the storm water ditch behind the McDonald's in Conway and every fast food restaurant along there was represented in that ditch," said Buddy Freeman.

Freeman is part of the Keep Horry County Beautiful Committee, which was formed in January to encourage litter prevention and beautification efforts in the county.

The committee hopes to engage people in the community to make them want to make roads like U.S. 501 look better, he said.

Currently, only four groups have signed up for the S.C. Department of Transportation's Adopt a Highway program for U.S. 501. The lack of community interest has been a problem for years, said area County Councilman Marion Foxworth.

Efforts were made to find a coalition of local businesses or a nonprofit organization to allocate hospitality tax money to take charge of cleanups and beautifications.

"We couldn't get anyone to receive the funds and be responsible for the work," said Foxworth. "We can't allocate the money to ourselves."

But the new county committee is now a certified part of Keep America Beautiful, meaning they're eligible for grants and other funds to help with their efforts.

"They will be soliciting nonprofit and private groups to help create a base for adopt-a-highway areas," said Steve Gosnell, the infrastructure and regulation division director.

Freeman said the group has ideas to engage area businesses in litter awareness through billboards and sponsored cleanups.

"Our main focus is educating the public," he said. "Once you can educate the public to the problem it'll be something that can take care of itself."

And picking up the litter could be just the beginning.

"You start with litter and then maybe you go to a beautification project," said Christopher Klement, the county planning department's staff liaison for the committee.

Some think a good place to start beautifying the road would be to get rid of the Bradford pear trees in the median between Myrtle Beach and Conway.

"They're not the trees you wanted planted in a median," Klement said, noting that the top-heavy growth of the trees makes them prone to breaking during storms. "I'm sure S.C. DOT would not allow those trees to be planted anymore."

"We'd like to cut them off at the ground if we could," said Dixie Anderson, of the DOT. "They don't stand up well to wind and they just look horrible."

But Anderson said the DOT doesn't have the money to have the trees removed, "so there's no real way to go about it."

To change anything in the DOT maintained right-of-way, from landscaping to entry-ways, an encroachment permit would have to be issued by the department and funding established for the project, said Gosnell.

"This committee may very well be the best point place for that," he said. "But we'll know later since they're just getting off the ground."