The Match for Myrtle Beach Mayor

Written By: 
Dawn Bryant
Crime, image and growth are spotlight issues as Election Day approaches

The Facebook Live video of a shooting along Ocean Boulevard earlier this year thrust Myrtle Beach into the national spotlight and left residents and leaders grappling to deal with the fallout.

The startling video, viewed at least 4.4 million times on Facebook, highlighted a violent crime in the city’s core that prompted new safety measures along the city’s main tourist drag and sparked debate about how the city is dealing with crime.

And it tarnished an image of an oceanside city that touts itself as a family-friendly destination and relies on vacationers to fuel the tourism-driven economy. The high-profile shooting in the wee hours of Father’s Day put Myrtle Beach in national headlines and gave meme-makers on social media new fodder.

The shooting, one of about a half-dozen that weekend, injured six people. Two people from North Carolina have been arrested; Myrtle Beach leaders say the trouble started in North Carolina then continued as the group was in Myrtle Beach.

“We have made the best out of that as we could have,” city spokesman Mark Kruea said. “Most people recognize that the Facebook Live video was the exception to the rule.”

But the effects still linger as the city heads into an election November 7 for mayor and three city council seats. The seats of council members Randal Wallace, Mike Lowder and Wayne Gray are up for grabs this November. The election is non-partisan, and all council seats are elected at-large, not by districts.

Mayor John Rhodes, seeking his fourth term, will face former mayor Mark McBride, who Rhodes unseated in 2005; Brenda Bethune, a Myrtle Beach native and businesswoman; Ed Carey, a development and construction project management consultant who moved to the city in 2006; and C.D. Rozsa, a mechanic who moved to Myrtle Beach in 1996.

McBride served as mayor of Myrtle Beach from 1998 until 2006, and as a city councilman from 1994 until he was elected mayor. He could not be reached to be interviewed for this story.

Bethune and Carey are political newcomers who say it’s time for a leadership change in Myrtle Beach. Bethune, 53, is CEO and majority owner of Better Brands, owns two bridal boutiques and owns BJ Investments, a local property investment and rental company. Carey, 60, a development and project management consultant, was the senior construction manager for the owner’s development team on The Market Common, where he now lives. Rozsa, 41, who unsuccessfully ran for a Myrtle Beach City Council seat in 2009, is proud to be the only “blue-collar” candidate, saying he is in touch with residents and businesses. He said he will not accept donations for his campaign so there won’t be any potential influence from contributors.

“I’m the underdog but that’s what the people need,” Rozsa said. “They need somebody who is going to stand up for them.”

Crime and the city’s image are two of the top issues of the mayoral candidates, along with economic development, growth and the need to balance desires of the city’s roughly 32,000 residents while catering to the estimated 18 million tourists who visit the Grand Strand each year.

Crime is the focal point for McBride, whose slogan is “Public Safety First.” He has suggested redirecting $10 million that is raised through the 1-cent sales tax for tourism that now goes to the Myrtle Beach Area Chamber of Commerce and using it to fund 100 new full-time officers, pay raises and more law enforcement for Memorial Day, he said in an August 5 post on his Facebook campaign page.

“Myrtle Beach crime is out of control. Our leadership has failed us and I could not sit on the sidelines and watch my beautiful city fall in to disarray. Join me to renergize (sic) and restore our great city,” he says on his campaign website, mbpublicsafetyfirst.com.

He spoke during the special City Council meeting two days after the Father’s Day shooting, applauding Bubba Hinson for capturing the incident on Facebook Live, which McBride said brought attention to crime in the area that forced the council to address it.

Rhodes criticized Hinson, who was in town for the S.C. State Firefighters’ Association Fire-Rescue Conference, for focusing on filming the incident instead of offering help to those who were injured. “This gentleman is a first responder,” Rhodes said. “He was so busy videoing, doing it live, that he never went down and aided any victims.”

The shooting occurred during a transition time for the city’s Police Department. Longtime chief Warren Gall left the job in May after 37 years. Assistant Chief Amy Prock was serving as interim chief and was sworn in as permanent chief in early July, shortly after the June 18 shooting.

“She’s already shown in just a short period of time how great her work ethic is and vision is,” Rhodes said.

Rhodes said the city cannot stop crime, but can stay on top of it. He wants to send a message to visitors that they will “go to jail if you come here and break the law. Let’s fight crime and fight crime hard,” he said.

The city has added officers in recent years, including five new sworn positions this budget year and 10 new officers in the 2014–15 budget year, Kruea said. The city’s police department has positions for 221 sworn personnel and 79 non-sworn personnel.

Carey said the city is losing officers just as quickly as the department adds them, likely because of long hours and too much paperwork required off the beat. “They are doing the best they can with the resources they’ve got,” Carey said.

Carey said he would form a committee of retired law enforcement officials to get their input on what the city’s police department needs, then find the money to provide those resources. The council needs to make it happen by shifting expenses around so the “priority is to protect our city.”

“It gets back to getting enough law enforcement,” Carey said.

He also wants to send a message to visitors that Myrtle Beach is not a place you can come and break the law. “You can make them awful uncomfortable,” Carey said.

Rozsa said the city needs more police officers, especially more experienced officers. More officers will give the city a bigger police presence that will deter crime. “We need to get more police officers out there,” Rozsa said. “People come here to cause trouble because they think they can get away with it.”

Bethune said there’s a lot more the city could do and should do about crime. One strategy would be to tackle the condition of some of the second-row hotels that rent at cheap rates, are poorly lit and are attracting the wrong people, she said.

“We have to clean up our front porch,” Bethune said. “We have to do something to get people to care about their appearance.”

Bethune also criticized the city’s immediate response after the shooting, saying leaders didn’t act quickly enough to diffuse the situation as the Facebook Live video went viral. City leaders should have immediately held a news conference to alleviate people’s fears, she said, adding that the city waited three days to address the situation during a specially called City Council meeting the Tuesday following the early Sunday shooting.

“We could have been much more proactive in combating it,” Bethune said. “Let people know what’s going on. Make them feel safe, welcome.”

Myrtle Beach’s image

Improving the city’s image would be a priority for Bethune if elected. She said the city’s brand has taken a beating, not only because of the Facebook Live video, but because of debate over water quality, parking for Horry County residents near the beach and the controversy over the city’s purchase of properties in the Superblock area downtown with plans to build the city library and children’s museum there.

“It’s a domino effect,” she said. “When you put them together, it has deteriorated how people see our brand. We have to deal with our brand issue.”

Image is especially important for a city like Myrtle Beach that relies so heavily on tourism. Visitors stop coming, and that could mean fewer jobs, tax revenues and development. “If we don’t do everything we can to protect that, then we all lose,” she said.

Rhodes acknowledged that the Facebook Live video damaged the Myrtle Beach brand, but he said officials continue to stress that the beach is safe. “It’s no question that it damaged it,” he said. “Since then we have been in recovery mode.”

Growth

Despite the hit to the brand, there’s a lot of positive happening in the city, Rhodes said. He touted the redevelopment at Broadway at the Beach that brought national names such as Dave & Buster’s and a Paula Deen restaurant and new development along the oceanfront including RipTydz Oceanfront Grille and Rooftop Bar and three new lodging towers that are under construction.

“We are growing and we are moving forward,” Rhodes said. “We are always looking at what we can do to enhance the quality of life for our residents and entertainment for our tourists.”

Rozsa said he’s heard from hoteliers who are having a hard time this summer because of the bad publicity from the Facebook Live video. The first thing the city has to do is “clean the beach up” with the increased police presence so that tourists feel safe coming here.

“People want to come, they are just scared to,” he said. “Once we clean it up, tourism will come back.”

The city issued about 6,520 building permits during the 2016–17 budget year (worth $411 million), the third-highest yearly value in the city behind the boom years of 2005–06 and 2006–07, Kruea said. That includes permits for 445 new single-family homes, many of them in the neighborhoods surrounding The Market Common.

Carey said Myrtle Beach isn’t seeing the same amount of development as other areas along the Grand Strand.

A desire to improve how the city works with developers prompted Carey to run for mayor. He criticized the city’s rules and lack of foresight to envision finished projects to head off potential issues, such as parking.

He said there needs to be a more collaborative effort between city planners and developers; entities such as the city’s Community Appearance Board, which approves the look of new construction, and the Downtown Redevelopment Corporation are getting in the way, he said.

Superblock

One of the city’s current projects—the proposed library and children’s museum in the Superblock—gets the most criticism from Carey and Bethune.

In January, the city announced that it planned to build an estimated $10 million library and Children’s Museum complex on property in the Superblock area that it had been acquiring. City officials say the current Chapin Memorial Library building off Kings Highway, built in 1949, is outdated. It would cost an estimated $3.6 million to renovate it, but it would be difficult to keep the library open while the renovations were being made, according to a Q&A about the project from the city.

Carey and Bethune say the city, which has been buying property from business owners for the project, hasn’t been transparent about its plans there. Carey said the city is moving forward but doesn’t have basic details such as cost, the size and what will go in the new buildings.

They also questioned the need for a new library and why the existing one couldn’t be renovated.

“I’m looking at my library right now. It’s called an iPhone,” Carey said. “They are not the hottest thing needed these days. I didn’t hear people screaming and yelling about how they want a new library.”

Bethune said the city moved forward on this project without being inclusive and getting feedback from residents and business owners—a common practice she said she sees in the city and wants to change. “I don’t like how it was done,” Bethune said.

She isn’t ready to give up on the area, saying it should be redeveloped but not demolished. “It is the last bit of history we have in Myrtle Beach and we need to preserve it,” Bethune said.

She envisions a hub of activity in the Superblock area, renovating the existing buildings with loft-style apartments upstairs and stores, cafes and art displays downstairs. Main Street could be closed to vehicles to make it for pedestrians only. “It should be non-stop activities year-round. It should be the heartbeat of everything that happens down here,” she said.

Rozsa said he thinks the city’s motive behind the project is to clean up crime in the Superblock area, but the city should have helped businesses there instead of buying the property and forcing those businesses to move.

Rhodes said the city has been looking at the area for the last few years because “there has not been any investments in the Superblock.”

The city’s Chapin Memorial Library is outdated, and the city has outgrown it, Rhodes said. When the Children’s Museum approached the city with a proposal, “it made sense to fit the two together.”

He said the new library will be “the library of the future” and that “tourists will go anywhere that creates excitement.”

McBride said on his campaign Facebook page that he supports the city library, but wants to make it better where it exists off Kings Highway.

“The current library needs renovations and upgrades, but the last thing the city needs is to start over in the library business from ground zero, go into further taxpayer debt and try to use a library to spur major economic growth,” he said in a Facebook post August 12.

Myrtle Beach has roughly 32,000 residents, a $190 million annual budget and about 910 full-time, year-round city workers. Polls will be open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. November 7.