What's up with Downtown?

Written By: 
Paul Grimshaw
Nine years after the demolition of the Pavilion Amusement Park, are we closer to finding out a plan for Myrtle Beach’s designated downtown area?

Readers of a certain age will remember the 1964 Petula Clark hit song “Downtown,” one of the very few pop songs uniquely dedicated to the vibrancy and supposed restorative power of an urban center. According to Clark, “Downtown” is where the rhythm of the traffic, along with the neon signs and the energy of the place, can cure whatever ails you. Visitors to world-class urban meccas such as New York City, New Orleans, Charleston, London and Paris can attest to Clark’s sentiments. But can the same invigorating accolades be given to downtown Myrtle Beach?

We already know that millions of tourists have loved it for decades; the summer masses began arriving in the 1930s. But what about the Millennials, recent transplants of all ages, senior snowbirds and the growing number of locals calling the greater Myrtle Beach area home? Do they have the same affinity for downtown Myrtle Beach as romanticized in song? Can downtown recover from the loss of the Sun Fun Festival and the Myrtle Beach Pavilion? If Myrtle Beach city planners, politicians and area business owners have any say, the answer is an unequivocal “yes!” and here’s why. But first…
 

Just where is downtown?
It depends on who you ask. The Oceanfront Merchants Association (OMA), the Downtown Redevelopment Corporation (DRC) and the City of Myrtle Beach all generally agree that downtown has its epicenter located at Peaches Corner (Ninth Avenue North and Ocean Boulevard). The greater downtown area is nestled between 29th Avenue North to 29th Avenue South and from Broadway Street and Oak Street on the western flank to the ocean’s edge at Ocean Boulevard. The region is loaded with history, some unfortunate notoriety, some massive recent improvements, and in a constant state of flux. Millions of dollars have been spent here recently in the form of local and state tax money and from outside investors, even during the worst of the worldwide recession in 2007 to 2010. Millions more are on the table to help revitalize a place with a few problems, a lot of heart and a lot of potential.

So what’s there beyond the decades-old remaining iconic attractions, gift shops and honky-tonks? For starters, some $20 million in new attractions in the past five years alone, several new restaurants and an enduring open-air space tailor made for music festivals that regularly draw tens of thousands of locals to a place they might otherwise rarely visit. The grandest of these festivals made a big splash on the oceanfront in early June.
 

Country Comes to Town
While OMA, representing some 60 downtown businesses, has been promoting concert festivals downtown since 2009, it was the Charlotte-based Full House Productions that brought the biggest ticketed outdoor show to Myrtle Beach. The Carolina Country Music Fest (CCMF) was held June 4–7 and sold around 16,000-plus tickets, averaging $170 each. Country music fans from all over the Southeast, many from right here along the Grand Strand, attended the festival that featured big stars, big production and utilized the large grass and sand lots that once sat beneath the Myrtle Beach Pavilion and the Pavilion Amusement Park. While a first-time event of this sort inevitably had a few glitches, most everyone involved—local businesses, hoteliers, concert promoters, the City of Myrtle Beach and concertgoers—saw it as an unmitigated success.

“There are lots of moving parts to a first-time event of that magnitude,” said Mark Kruea, Public Information Officer for the City of Myrtle Beach. “But we think it went well. That’s not to say there weren’t issues, but they were relatively minor considering the size and scope of the event. We need to work with downtown businesses to get them more involved.”

OMA’s free St. Patrick’s Day Festival and Oktoberfest events have been drawing crowds upwards of 10,000 to the same downtown region year after year, and Native Sons’ Salt Games grows its attendance numbers each year as well with music and athletic competitions.

But downtown is more than its occasional concert events. What about the rest of the year?

“Clearly the Myrtle Beach Boardwalk was a game changer for the core area,” said DRC Executive Director David Sebok. “From business response, customer satisfaction and building awareness of Myrtle Beach around the country, the Boardwalk [the first phase completed in 2010] spurred additional attractions and businesses to downtown. The SkyWheel, for example, decided, in part, to locate where they did because of the Boardwalk.”

The DRC, a 501(c)3 non-profit organization, directs, facilitates, studies and consults on all things downtown, including redevelopment, beautification and infrastructure.

“We’re continuing work on the streetscapes,” explained Sebok, “and are in the last stages of the Ocean Boulevard improvements between Second Avenue and Ninth Avenue North. Also, Mr. Joe White Avenue Utility and Streetscape projects and similar works are additional positive improvements to the infrastructure as well. We’re working on a couple of major public [space] improvements and the realignment of U.S. Highway 501 as it intersects Kings Highway. That project will do a number of things, including providing cleaner access to the downtown core area and [spur] continued redevelopment of Five Points [Main Street, Broadway Street, Oak Street and Ninth Avenue North] with more pedestrian access and better traffic flow.”
The DRC was created by the Myrtle Beach City Council in 1999 to implement a master plan for the “Pavilion Area.” In another word, downtown.

So just what is happening with the site of the Burroughs & Chapin-owned former Myrtle Beach Pavilion and Pavilion Amusement Park, which was razed in 2006? Nearly 10 years after its demolition, neither B&C, the DRC nor the City of Myrtle Beach are any closer to a concrete plan.

“The DRC has always worked closely with B&C on their properties,” said Sebok. “There have been a number of ideas that have been discussed, but we have nothing firm to share at the moment.”
B&C, too, remains mum on the future of what was once downtown Myrtle Beach’s primary draw.

“The Pavilion site is an important asset to Burroughs & Chapin and all its stakeholders,” said Lei Gainer, Director of Public Relations for Lesnik Himmelsbach Wilson Hearl, the firm representing B&C.

“While there have been several iterations of plans over the years, market conditions have not supported any executions.” Gainer said. “We have other assets in the downtown area and are seeking highest and best use for these properties.”

“Burroughs & Chapin is a good corporate citizen,” said Kruea. “I’m sure that when they get to the point of developing the property they’ll keep the relationship to public space and the downtown businesses in mind. It has great potential. It’s wonderful to have that public space there.” said Kruea. “The ZipLine is kind of a temporary use, but I’m sure whatever [ends up there] will have a public component.”

In the meantime, the empty space once occupied by the Pavilion makes for a picturesque lot perfectly suited for large crowds and a variety of music.

“We had a lot of involvement with the CCMF as we leased and subleased the Pavilion site for the festival,” said Sebok, “and we do the same for OMA and the Salt Games. We stay directly involved with special event promoters. By all measures, from the DRC perspective the [CCMF] was another game changer for the city and for downtown. It demonstrated that the city could handle a large festival, the largest ever held here, and that it was held downtown, safely, and everyone’s ready for bigger and better moving forward.”
 

Rock and Reggae, too
Many locals who never venture downtown may be unaware of the Hot Summer Nights free concerts held on a large stage oceanfront at redeveloped Plyler Park (Mr. Joe White Avenue at Ocean Boulevard). OMA’s mission to “keep feet on the street to help get dollars in the door” inspired these OMA-managed shows, which draw large crowds every night in the heart of the summer season, and every Saturday evening through September. Holidays on the Boardwalk will run December through January and OMA is working on a major Mardi Gras Festival for 2016 in addition to its annual St. Patrick’s Day and Oktoberfest events.

An oceanfront stage has hosted a Battle of the Bands 2015 for the better part of the summer, with the final competition scheduled for October 11. The winning act will receive thousands in cash and prizes and perform before the large Oktoberfest crowd.

The California Roots, a nationwide rock-reggae festival, will move its Carolina Session from Wilmington, N.C., to the site of the former Pavilion on October 3. The ticketed event ($70–$140) is expected to draw 4,000–5,000 attendees, providing another boost to downtown in the fall shoulder season.


More than Music:

Downtown Dining
Beyond the foot-long hotdog, fish sandwich and pizza spots, downtown Myrtle Beach continues to upgrade its dining options. In 2014 a gourmet burger and sushi restaurant called ART Burger Sushi Bar opened, featuring rotating works of art, gourmet burgers, nitrogen-infused cocktails and sushi. Banditos Restaurant & Cantina opened downtown in 2012 at 14th Avenue North and co-funded extensions to the Boardwalk. The popular Murrells Inlet restaurant, Wicked Tuna, will open Wicked Tuna 2 at 19th Avenue North and Ocean Boulevard. More restaurants are coming to downtown in the coming months, one of which will include open-air rooftop dining.

Even casual visitors simply driving through the downtown Myrtle Beach area can’t help but to have noticed the significant improvements in the past several years. Buried utilities, median beautification, bike lanes, new hotel construction and new restaurants and attractions should encourage new visitation from disenchanted locals and visitors who may have given up on downtown long ago. This is a different place today from what many may remember, and though the sandy lots and Miss Sun Fun Beauty pageants of yesteryear may be gone, there’s something new and vibrant happening. Those with a vested interest in downtown regularly sing Petula Clark’s refrain: “linger on the sidewalks where the neon signs are pretty. Happy again. Everything’s waiting for you.”

Click here for more photos from the inaugural Carolina Country Music Fest