An “Urban Village” Vision Realized

April 2018
Written By: 
Dawn Bryant
Photographs by: 
Randall Hill

The Market Common celebrates its 10th anniversary

When Carol Hannon was looking for a place to live two years ago, something kept drawing her back to The Market Common.

The walkability. The convenience of having restaurants, shops and parks just steps away from her front door. A landlord that would take care of an appliance if it broke or fix the air conditioner if it went out—the headaches of homeownership she was ready to shed.

“We just wanted to rent for a while,” said Hannon, who lives with her sister, Vivian. “The whole idea of living here appealed to us. We were over here all the time anyway. We kept getting drawn back to Market Common.”

The pair, who had sold their residence in nearby Seagate, were regulars at The Market Common, frequently stopping by to eat at one of the dozen restaurants, browse the boutiques and stores or hang out in Barnes & Noble. Then it hit her during one of those visits. “You know what? This is for us.”

Now, Hannon is fully immersed in The Market Common lifestyle. She walks to the restaurants to eat at least three times a week and regularly pops in the stores to browse. She enjoys gazing out her window at Valor Park and hearing the buzz of activity from folks strolling the center’s sidewalks below.

“You can hear the city life—the laughing down below, the piped-in music,” Hannon said. “It’s like being in a small downtown. We love it here.”

But it wasn’t long ago that this type of “urban village” development had never been heard of in Myrtle Beach. A compact community with stores, restaurants, parks and amenities, all within walking distance of neighborhoods that also attracts many of the tourists who come to the Grand Strand? OK, yeah, we’ll see.

And folks sure see it now. The Market Common—the first substantial development on the former Myrtle Beach Air Force Base—celebrates its 10th anniversary in April. The urban village overcame the challenges of the Great Recession to become so successful it fueled the addition of a variety of neighborhoods, parks and ball fields, other commercial centers, service businesses such as banks and health care offices and the growth of the Grand Strand campus of Horry Georgetown Technical College.

“All of those things were made possible because The Market Common was there,” said Buddy Styers, executive director of the Myrtle Beach Air Force Base Redevelopment Authority, which still oversees the development on the former base.

It has blossomed to become, by far, the fastest-growing area of the city; a go-to spot for visitors to play and residents to live. There’s no sign that growth will let up any time soon. Drive along Farrow Parkway and you’ll see more neighborhoods popping up, construction on a three-story, $44 million Tidelands Health Medical Park and freshly readied lots for more housing units.

A hotel is in the works for the lot across from the former Piggly Wiggly, and a new bowling and entertainment center plans to open in that former grocery store space in late May or early June.

“Growth is here and it’s not stopping,” said Jessi Leeson, who has worked at Gordon Biersch Brewery Restaurant since it opened along with The Market Common in 2008, first as a bartender and now as its general manager. “All the communities getting built left and right. … It’s just been non-stop development.”

Getting Started

It took years to jumpstart development in The Market Common area, which is made up of the 3,937 acres that the Myrtle Beach Air Force Base left for redevelopment when it closed in 1993.

Before construction of The Market Common started, you didn’t see much activity on the former base. The Myrtle Beach Air Force Base Redevelopment Authority, which was charged with overseeing the redevelopment, was still working to turn the vision of the urban village into reality.

“I remember this area: The only thing here was the real estate school and Toffino’s [Italian Bakery & Deli]. It was almost like overnight that this place popped up,” said Maureen Hohos, who works at Anthropologie in The Market Common and lives in The Reserve, one of numerous neighborhoods that have been built on the former base.

Styers wishes it would have gone that quickly. The Market Common was in the works for more than a decade before it opened, with officials first having to learn exactly what the proposed “urban village” concept was and if it was the right fit for Myrtle Beach.

“Back in ’97, ’98, none of us really knew what an urban village was or what it looked like,” Styers said.

Styers visited ones in places such as Palm Beach, Florida, and Arlington, Virginia, to ensure this development would be a good fit for Myrtle Beach and, just as important, a solid first project on the former Air Force Base.

The authority had locked down McCaffery Interests as the developer in late 2004, then spent the next few years going through the process of securing the various layers of approvals from the city.

“There are just a million things you had to do and all of them take time. It just has to work itself through the process and it was a challenge,” Styers said. “We just had to work our way through them.”

City leaders wanted to ensure the development included the urban village concept and that it matched what residents had said that they wanted to see on the former base land during workshops, city planner Allison Hardin said.

“One of the challenges was getting the right people to put the plan in place,” Hardin said. “We were not going to budge from it without a serious reason.”

They found the right developer at just the right time—locking down details of the deal just before the economy started sliding into the Great Recession, which Styers said could have derailed the project completely.

“The toughest thing we had to do was find the developer who would be willing to jump in and develop that property,” Styers said. “Had we been six months later trying to do that, we probably wouldn’t have gotten anything done.

“The economy kind of went in the tank. Luckily, they were already set to build it,” Styers said.

Getting Going

The Market Common debuted with much fanfare on April 3, 2008, with a mix of 41 stores, restaurants and specialty tenants; 125 long-term rentals; 70 vacation rentals and six tenants in the office building. The complex featured familiar names, including Barnes & Noble (which moved from its Seaboard Street location) and high-end retailers such as Williams-Sonoma, Banana Republic and Ann Taylor.

The complex wasn’t an instant hit. The Great Recession, which began in December 2007 and lingered until June 2009, had consumers clinging to their dollars instead of shopping and splurging on meals at restaurants. On top of that, those who were spending didn’t know about this tucked-away new center, which sits at least two miles off a main highway where folks driving by would see it. Being isolated was a plus for security on the Air Force Base, but not so much for the businesses that replaced it.

“We started right when the market crashed,” said Leeson, who was one of Gordon Biersch’s first bartenders. “The first couple of months was rough. There were some days I’d go home with 20 bucks.”

But soon the restaurant had developed a following of locals that kept the brewery going during those early years.

“We have a lot of people who have been coming here for 10 years,” Leeson said. “We’re lucky. We are kind of like the local ‘Cheers.’”

Business really started picking up about three to four years after The Market Common opened, Leeson said. Consumers started discovering the complex through new billboards. And the area hosted popular community events and created new events such as the New Year’s Eve party known as A Southern Times Square, which now fuels record sales at Gordon Biersch.

And those who had already discovered what The Market Common had to offer started recommending it to their friends, creating a buzz about this new place.

“It took a long time for it to catch on,” Leeson said. “If you didn’t come down Farrow Parkway you wouldn’t have known this existed.”

During those early years, Styers, Hardin and others worried that the recession would doom the development they worked so patiently and persistently to turn into reality.

“Flat-out panic,” Hardin said. “That’s why we had to keep hands on the plan.”

City leaders adjusted the masterplan to match the demands of the market. Spots where townhouses were to be built shifted to single-family homes once the busted real estate market—which had sent prices plummeting—started to improve.

“They sold like hotcakes, and we kept making amendments as the market called for,” Hardin said.

Now, developers can’t build the houses fast enough. Residents crave living in an environment where they can walk their dogs around the lake at Grand Park then stop by a shop where they know the employee by name to grab a dog treat from the bowls sitting at some stores’ doors.

Dawn Melito loves the convenience of walking or riding her bike from her house at Emmens Preserve to her job at Handpicked jewelry store. She loves the atmosphere of The Market Common, including the friendliness of the folks, the music that plays through speakers and the well-manicured flowers that perk up the complex.

“It was a great location all around,” Melito said of why she bought a house there. “It’s a delightful atmosphere. It’s clean. It’s fresh. There are so many people from all over.”

And where else can you have a tab at the local coffee shop so you can grab a drink even when you’re out getting some exercise riding your bike and without your wallet?

“I can just go in there and get something and be on my way,” Melito said.

Tenant turnover

While Gordon Biersch and others were able to survive those tough early years, many didn’t make it, including Banana Republic, Ann Taylor, Fossil, Williams-Sonoma, Brooks Brothers and others. Some of those brands had partnered with the developer on other urban village projects outside major cities, but they didn’t fit the Myrtle Beach market, Hardin said.

“The population down here wasn’t enough to keep those stores going,” she said.

Some consumers still ask workers in existing stores what happened to their favorite retailers.

“Our out-of-town locals still ask about Banana Republic or Ann Taylor,” Hohos said.

Piggly Wiggly, the center’s only grocery store, couldn’t make it work either. The 43,000-square-foot store closed in October 2016, saying then that it struggled initially as the housing crisis hit and never fully recovered. Officials also said then that it faced stiff competition from other nearby grocery stores. The loss of the Piggly Wiggly took away a grocery store within a close walking distance, a place for residents to do their shopping or for workers to grab a quick meal on their brief lunch breaks.

A Wal-Mart Neighborhood Market and a Food Lion are just a couple of miles away from The Market Common, but residents say they are just not as convenient and those stores don’t feature the gourmet items that Piggly Wiggly did.

“When the grocery store shut down—that was the biggest disappointment,” Hohos said. “That was a huge selling point for The Market Common.”

Don’t expect to see another grocery store moving in any time soon. “It’s not something we are planning right now,” said Heather Gray, The Market Common’s general manager.

The turnover in retail tenants worries some residents and business managers, who say they hope the complex will find its niche with the right mix of stores for this market.

“I get concerned when some stores sit empty,” Hannon said.

Some residents say that in addition to a grocery store, they’d like to see more stores for men, a pharmacy such as CVS or Walgreens and a general store.

“People want to get a soda or pick up a newspaper,” Melito said.

Stepping Up the Game

There has been lots of buzz about the newest development coming to The Market Common—a family-focused bowling and entertainment center that is expected to open in late May or June.

810 Market Common, which is moving into the former Piggly Wiggly space, is not your typical bowling alley. It will feature 20 bowling lanes, but also will have live music, billiards and other games such as cornhole, darts and ping pong and a menu featuring brick oven pizza, burgers and other items.

“Our idea is to give you a better bar and dining experience and couple that with other entertainment options,” owner Michael Siniscalchi said. “I would encourage people not to put us in the box of a bowling alley. We are a lot more than that.”

Impressed by the family-focused approach in Siniscalchi’s 710 Bowling in North Myrtle Beach, The Market Common approached him about bringing that concept to the center.

“We believe what they are doing is bringing family and friends together, putting away the electronics and doing things together,” Gray said.

Siniscalchi said The Market Common has a great buzz surrounding it, and his business will fit right in.

“It’s always at the top of the list that people are referring me to. It’s a great place to walk around and spend time with family,” he said. “It comes up a lot as a place you should check out. Market Common is kind of the destination of the Myrtle Beach area, especially the last few years.”

Moving Forward

In the next few years, The Market Common area could have its first hotel, another fire station, more ball fields and new stores.

“We will be adding new tenants to the few remaining available spaces and working on some expansions and upgrades for some of our existing tenants and have completed entitlements for an adjacent hotel,” Gray said, declining to give specifics about the new tenants.

A hotel is in the works for the land across from the former Piggly Wiggly, though officials don’t have a timetable for when it will be built.

The former Air Force Base is nearly built out, with 80 to 85 percent of the land developed, officials said. There’s some land near Barnes & Noble, Wal-Mart Neighborhood Market, the softball fields and a handful of other spots.

“There are very few places left,” Hardin said.

Residents are eager to see what’s next.

“It’s going to thrive,” Melito said. “It’s in a perfect location. I think it is going to evolve. The public is going to make its wishes known. We’ll see changes. But it’s always going to be a great draw for tourists and people who live here as well. It’s a happy place.”

Styers and Hardin are proud of the development, saying all the challenges were worth it to see that once unheard-of concept and vision become the reality that thrives today.

Styers remembers a letter to the editor in the local newspaper criticizing him for saying the former Air Force Base property would become so seamless and such an integral part of the city that you wouldn’t even know the base had been there (except for all the nods to it in the street names, historical markers and museum).

“Turns out we did know what we were talking about,” Styers said. “It all worked.”