Growth Opportunity

August 2018
Written By: 
Charles T. Glazer

Grand Strand area leaders envision the Grand Strand in 50 years

It’s 2068 on the Grand Strand. More than 45,000 people file out of the oceanfront virtual reality center, having watched the Carolina Panthers defeat the Barcelona Warriors in the Super Bowl on a giant, three-dimensional hologram platform. Many in the crowd take the moving walkway to the hydrofoil dock for a high-speed shuttle to their cruise ship anchored a half-mile offshore. Others take scenic cable cars to celebrate at the entertainment complex atop the 115-story Conch Tower, while still others ride the 150 mph high-speed elevated train to parking lots 20 miles inland—an eight-minute trip.

Fantasy? Far-fetched? Maybe … and maybe not. The Grand Strand has changed dramatically in the past 50 years and likely will change even more dramatically in the decades ahead. And yet, it could still be mostly about the ocean, the beach, fun in the sun and relaxation.

To envision the Grand Strand in 50 years, we talked with government and community leaders from North Myrtle Beach to Georgetown, including Myrtle Beach, Surfside Beach, Pawleys Island, Conway, Horry County and the Myrtle Beach Chamber of Commerce. (We invited Brunswick County, North Carolina, officials to participate but they did not respond.) We posed a series of key questions addressing growth, transportation and infrastructure, business and commerce, tourism and other factors. Most government and civic leaders along the Grand Strand were quite eager to share their thoughts and vision for the future.

Outgoing Horry County Council Chairman Mark Lazarus gave an insightful view. “Our area is a great place to live, work and visit, and we are pleased to serve the residents and visitors to Horry County every single day. We also recognize that the Grand Strand is experiencing rapid growth and we are working with our local partners to ensure we are prepared for that growth. In fact, the Horry County Planning Department is currently working with community leaders, committee members and citizens to develop a long-term comprehensive plan—‘IMAGINE 2040’—that will serve as a blueprint for the next 20 years and help guide decision makers around the county.”

Lazarus said the county’s long-term plan addresses the same issues and concerns this article addresses.

Mark Kruea, public information officer for the City of Myrtle Beach, shared a long-range vision. “Imagine how far Myrtle Beach has come since 1968, then realize that the changes by 2068 will be even more dramatic. What we think of as ‘the beach’ will be a much larger area, with the retail, restaurant and entertainment mix extending well to the west, beyond the Intracoastal Waterway.

“The immediate shoreline will continue to be the main tourism hub,” Kruea continued, “with enhanced landscaping, roadways and transportation alternatives. We’ll have parkways instead of highways. Residential areas will continue to exist side-by-side with transient accommodations, but in more dense neighborhoods, much like today’s Market Common. Look for new roads, more connectivity and new hubs of residential and commercial activity. Jurisdictional lines will be even more blurred, if they still exist west of the waterway. I hope we can keep the small-town feel as the permanent population increases, but the range of activities and amenities will be much greater.”

The question most leaders responded to dealt with growth of tourism, and there was unanimous opinion that tourism would continue growing and would remain a key factor in the region’s strength and vitality.

“I believe tourism will always be the life-blood of our local economy,” said Diana Greene, interim chief of staff for the Myrtle Beach Area Chamber of Commerce. “We have 60 miles of amazing beaches, attractions and lodging options that suit many different types of people. The diversity of our visitors is a huge strength that has helped us weather many tough economic times.” Greene added, “Tourism will grow, but there are many complementary industries that can and should become part of our local economy. Just as our diversification in visitors helps our strength, so would the diversification in industries.”

Kruea envisions both tourism and permanent residency growing. “Tourism still will be the main industry, as people will want to be near the sea and the sand,” he said. “But other amenities will draw them here, too. Experiential adventures, coupled with an even larger variety of dining, shopping, recreation and entertainment options will keep Myrtle Beach on top of the vacation to-do list. At the same time, more people will want to live here. We’re already seeing an exodus from the Northeast, as people realize that living here is less expensive and less stressful. Plus, the weather is better and the atmosphere is more fun. The number of permanent residents will grow exponentially during the next 50 years. That will create a secondary economy—providing goods and services for the locals—but it won’t exceed tourism.”

“Tourism will always continue to be a dominant sector due to the beach and the affordability of the Grand Strand, but diversification of the economy will depend on attracting a creative labor force,” added Jim Wood, director of planning and development for North Myrtle Beach. Wood also envisions strong growth in permanent residency. “Current location decisions for major industries are being driven by quality of life issues and availability of a talented labor pool. The creative workers of tomorrow want diverse communities, a large variety of housing and mobility options, walkable neighborhoods and safe and attractive public spaces.”

Carey Smith, interim city administrator for Georgetown, also envisions growing tourism, but equally important, he foresees strong growth in other industries and permanent residency. “I think tourism will continue to be a strong feature in economic growth. However, I think there will be more diverse business opportunities that serve the younger population—technology linked to robotics, computers, electric vehicles and communications.”

Conway, situated well inland from beach attractions, expects to see stronger growth in permanent residency. “In Conway, tourism is not the primary source of business growth,” said Adam Emrick, city administrator. “It may be the root of regional growth, but that regional growth is the cause of business growth in Conway. Land and home prices in Conway are far more affordable than at the beach, so the bulk of our growth is not from second home owners, but retirees relocating here and families making this their home.”

Julie Samples of the Surfside Beach town council agreed. “Tourism will continue to grow and be a key industry if we protect the beaches and ocean.” However, she added, “Health and education should and could also be important sources of growth.” Samples believes the potential for growth is near limitless as long as we keep the beaches clean and safe.

Ryan Fabbri, town administrator for Pawleys Island, envisions growth in both tourism and permanent residency, with strong growth in businesses. “Tourism will always be the main driver of the economy here,” he said. “But I do believe more and more people will decide to make it their permanent residence. It’s hard not to fall in love with the area and want to live here all year long. For the very same reason some business owners might decide to move their operations to the Grand Strand. This would help diversify the local economy, but it will always survive on tourism dollars.”

Greene pointed out that the Chamber’s goal is for 20 million visitors by 2020, versus 14 million currently. “We are not just seeking growth during peak season, but also in the shoulder seasons when we have a great deal of opportunity. Group markets, meetings and conventions, and motor coaches, for instance, have helped bring in visitors during slower times per year.”

Growth in tourism and permanent residents will demand vast improvements in transportation and other infrastructure needs. Everyone who responded to our questions expressed concerns that roads and infrastructure keep pace with population and tourism growth.

In Conway, Emrick provided this view, “We must have an interstate connection for the benefit of our citizens as well as our visitors. We cannot even begin to properly diversify our economy with industrial growth and large-scale retail growth without this connection. Simply widening Highway 501 will not be sufficient to attract and promote industry that will increase wages for our residents. Ideally, we will have two connections, I-73 and, with the extension of Highway 31 into North Carolina, hopefully a connection that will reach Interstate 40.”

He added, “We have severe needs in Conway. There are only two ways into and out of the city heading eastward, the historic Main Street Bridge and the 501 Bypass Bridge. ... In 50 years, we will need many more points of access across the Waccamaw River. In the GSATS Long Range Transportation Plan, the city has included a new bridge crossing the Waccamaw north of the Main Street Bridge. This bridge could be an extension of a Conway Loop road, which would include El Bethel, Cultra Road, Country Club Road and the newly approved RIDE III funded extension of El Bethel to Highway 701 South. This bridge could also align more closely to the eagerly anticipated International Drive and provide a fantastic connection both for travel ease and also for a more practical evacuation route for those leaving the beach.”

North Myrtle Beach’s Wood envisioned some large-scale changes. “Transportation infrastructure will need to change to accommodate self-driving vehicles and electric charging stations for vehicles as internal combustion engines become obsolete. Additionally, it is likely there may be large-scale wind farms offshore in areas identified as having adequate wind fields to support electrical generation. Also, housing preferences are slowly changing as generational change continues. Single-family homes on larger lots are slowly losing market share in favor of smaller housing units, rental housing, condominiums and townhouses as Gen X’ers and Millennials enter the housing market. Additionally, we will see a need for increased senior housing and units that are within walkable distance of goods and services.”

Kruea expressed a view that the region’s rich natural resources be maintained and protected, especially its vast waterways and ecology. “I hope that these natural elements will be incorporated into future developments so that they become attractive features. As with The Market Common, we’ve worked with, rather than against, the gifts that Mother Nature has provided. We’ll need to be cautious about flood zones and hurricane threats, to be sure, but wetlands and waterways can become part of the beautiful landscaping for the region.

“Horry County’s population will easily approach 1 million in 50 years versus 333,000 today,” Kruea continued. “A five percent growth rate adds 20,000 people a year at today’s numbers. Thoughtful, deliberate planning now for that much growth will mean the difference between coordination and clutter and between connectivity and chaos.”

In Surfside Beach, Samples expressed concern that we build partnerships and utilize advances in materials and sciences to work together and manage growth within our environment. She said that water and sewage should be main concerns because of the topography of our land. With no mountain ranges capturing our air, the winds blow freely here. Waste and pollution are problems now and recycling needs to be a priority.

Fabbri expressed a similar concern about climate change. “Climate change and sea level rise pose significant challenges to the future of the Grand Strand, and as a coastal community it’s a risk we can’t afford to ignore. Even if future sea level rise is in line with the more conservative estimates, in 50 years certain areas along the Strand will no longer be viable places to live or vacation.”

Emrick also emphasized the key role Coastal Carolina University will play in the region’s development over the decades ahead. “Coastal Carolina University means so much to the city of Conway. We look forward to 50 more years of partnership with the university. There has been no secret that Conway would like to see CCU have a greater presence in downtown Conway and as the university continues to grow and succeed, we hope that it will continue to look at downtown and the surrounding area for this growth. The health of the city depends heavily on the health of Coastal Carolina University.”

Kruea summed up his overall view of the next 50 years in a way that echoed many of the comments of his peers. “I expect that we’ll see a blurring of jurisdictional lines by 2068, along with a recognition that cities provide a higher level of service. You generally get what you pay for, and the public wants more and better service. Some governments may have merged by 2068, although geographic barriers, such the Intracoastal Waterway, may limit where those alliances form. Annexation and incorporation are positives when it comes to well-managed growth. It would be nice to have greater cooperation among governments at all levels —city, county and state—with common goals.

“Transportation—especially a first-class road network, including an interstate—will be the key to a successful future,” he said. “We may see some residential high rises as an alternative to single-family homes, such as those that are being built now in Raleigh and Charlotte. These could spring up as the core of commercial clusters, west of the waterway, but within easy access of the beach and the entertainment destinations.”

His final words: “The view would be spectacular!”

So maybe a 115-story Conch Tower and offshore cruise ship terminal aren’t so far-fetched. As for the Carolina Panthers winning the Super Bowl, well, we’ll see!