Chinese investors eyeing former Hard Rock theme park site in Myrtle Beach

A view of Waccamaw Pottery and the former Hard Rock Park from the air in March 2015.
A view of Waccamaw Pottery and the former Hard Rock Park from the air in March 2015. The Sun News file photo

The Chinese investors being courted by Grand Strand leaders have shown an interest in redeveloping the former Hard Rock Park site, including possibly converting some the property into a sports facility, according to public records and officials.

When Horry County Council Chairman Mark Lazarus and Myrtle Beach Mayor John Rhodes returned from their 16-day trip to China in early February, they announced they had met with Chinese business leaders about a potential $100 million tourism project involving property “west of the waterway.” The two provided few additional details beyond the investment amount, the number of potential jobs (100) and a vague description of the location.

But a Dec. 6 email from one of the leaders’ Chinese contacts to Rhodes described upcoming discussions about the “music theme park” land. The Sun News obtained the email and other expense records through an S.C. Freedom of Information Act request.

Those documents indicate Chinese investors sought information about the Fantasy Harbour park property near the corner of U.S. 501 and George Bishop Parkway, including details about its owners, debts and any development plans.

They also wanted to know about possible government support and a “proposal of cooperation” for a sports facility, though the paperwork did not include specifics about what type of facility that would be.

When asked about the records, Lazarus said discussions about the site were ongoing and he didn’t want to reveal anything that would jeopardize the deal.

“I can’t tell you exactly what, when and how,” he said.

Rhodes, a longtime advocate for sports tourism, also remained tight-lipped. He said a group of investors will visit the Grand Strand in April to make a decision about how to spend their money.

“I truly think that, whatever they decide to do, that you’re going to find people here very pleased with [it],” he said.

The trip for Rhodes and Lazarus to go to China cost nearly $8,000 in public money, with most of those dollars going to airfare. Records show the city paid about $4,200 for the mayor’s expenses while Horry County split the cost of the chairman’s plane tickets with the Myrtle Beach Regional Economic Development Corp. (each entity paid about $1,700). Although the economic development group is primarily funded with tax dollars, the agency does use private donations to pay for some of its industry recruitment efforts.

Rhodes said lodging and meals were covered by their Chinese hosts.

The trip was originally scheduled to be shorter, but Rhodes said some businessmen who have already made large Myrtle Beach investments such as Dan Liu (golf courses) and the Wang brothers (former Waccamaw Pottery) asked them to visit their cities and companies.

“When somebody comes and invests $100 million and buys 22 golf courses, and adds another $25-26 million, people will kind of ask, ‘Well, where’s the money coming from? What is it all about?’” Rhodes said. “And we wanted to see what the business was all about.”

Local leaders have said their trip focused on finding investors to reinvigorate barren or dilapidated areas of the Grand Strand.

The former music park land certainly fits that description.

Hard Rock Park opened to great fanfare in April 2008, offering a rock ’n’ roll-themed rides like the Led Zeppelin roller coaster. But the attraction never drew the crowds its owners anticipated. By September that year, the park had closed and filed for bankruptcy.

A company called FPI MB Entertainment LLC bought the park out of bankruptcy for $25 million and rebranded it as Freestyle Music Park.

Freestyle stayed open for one recession-strained season in 2009 before running into financial problems and closing. It has remained shuttered since then.

Gradually, the rides were dismantled and sold, leaving the site a 140-acre wasteland.

FPI US LLC is the mortgage holder that reclaimed the property through a foreclosure auction in 2011.

Jennifer Tedlock, registered agent for FPI US, declined to discuss the site’s prospects, saying the owner lives in Russia and had not authorized her to speak with the media.

For some businesses in the Fantasy Harbour area, the possibility of new life at the old theme park sparked excitement.

“I would like to see something good for sure,” said Martin Durham, property manager at the former Waccamaw Pottery center near the park. “It’s a prime location for Myrtle Beach. [U.S.] 501 is the driveway to Myrtle Beach.”

Durham said he tried to persuade the Pottery center’s Chinese owners to purchase the park, but they weren’t interested.

“They’re happy with what they’ve got,” he said, noting that the center has nearly 20 tenants and is trying to add others. “It’s slowly getting where it needs to be.”

The Pottery area is of particular interest to Rhodes, who said the longtime shopping staple took a hit when Tanger Outlets opened on U.S. 501.

“We’re trying to get it to come back,” he said. “To make maybe some retail shops there for Chinese products. … I want to get back to what started it and what made it was the pottery.”

Apart from the shopping center, Chinese investors have scooped up other properties in recent years, including more than 20 local golf courses and oceanfront property.

“They bought some golf courses that might be getting ready to close,” Rhodes said. “Think about the jobs they’ve saved. People don’t understand that. They don’t have Chinese people over here working the golf courses, taking over. They’re investors. They made an investment. They let the people that ran them run them now.”

The mayor has courted investors during his eight visits to China. His first trip was organized by Jane Zheng, the Keller Williams Myrtle Beach Realtor who has been one of the driving forces behind the recent surge in Chinese investment.

Zheng was involved in the Pottery and golf course sales. She said the attractions pulling the Chinese to Myrtle Beach are the same factors that draw other transplants: warm weather, beaches, golf courses and inexpensive property.

“We have a lot to offer,” she said. “Once you get them here, they see the value. The hard part is to get them here.”

Many Chinese are familiar with large U.S. cities such as Los Angeles and New York, but Rhodes said one of the challenges he faces in China is making investors aware of the city. During his trip with Lazarus, the two leaders appeared on a television program and were interviewed by a Chinese newspaper. They also met with government officials and tourism leaders.

Rhodes already had made some connections. A secretary general visited the Grand Strand over Thanksgiving last year.

“We have to educate people on Myrtle Beach because we’re not a New York City, we’re not a Los Angeles, we’re not a Miami Beach,” the mayor said. “We’re Myrtle Beach. It’s a city of 28,500 people that’s the size of their dadgum neighborhoods, some towns. … We’re selling a city they’ve never heard of.”

But in terms of tourism, Lazarus said Chinese officials and business leaders are interested in promoting Myrtle Beach.

“They’re dying to come to Myrtle Beach,” he said. “It’s unbelievable.”

In December, a month before Lazarus and Rhodes left for China, a Chinese investor named Ming Wu visited Myrtle Beach.

In an email to Rhodes, Wu indicated he wanted to discuss plans for the former music park property during his trip to the Grand Strand. He also talked about making arrangements for Chinese students to visit Myrtle Beach this summer to learn about the area.

Rhodes said Wu plans to open a restaurant on Ocean Boulevard this spring, but his December trip to Myrtle Beach was to scout the area so he could report back to other investors in China.

He said Wu’s visit set the stage for the negotiations the mayor and chairman had in Beijing with investors from China and Taiwan. During those conversations, Rhodes said they discussed redeveloping “some of the blighted areas that we have.”

That meeting, he said, is where the investors committed to spending $100 million in the Myrtle Beach area.

“In the minds of the Chinese, the United States is still the safest place in the world to invest money,” Rhodes said. “They believe that with economies everywhere, this economy will always be strong. It may be weak for a couple of years, but it will always be the economy that comes back quicker than everybody else.”

In April, about 30 investors are expected to visit the Myrtle Beach area. In addition to the tourism project, they are considering the community for various ventures, including health care companies and distribution centers.

Apart from the financial investments, local officials and Chinese leaders have talked about creating educational programs for Chinese students.

“This gives us a chance to, I guess you could say, show off what we have here,” Rhodes said.

The mayor hopes these efforts don’t stop with camps or exchange programs. Eventually, he said, he’d like to see Mandarin taught in Horry County schools.

“This country is in business with China,” he said. “It’s not going to change.”

Charles D. Perry: 843-626-0218, @TSN_CharlesPerr