The Politics of Myrtle Beach

Publish Date: 
Apr 24, 2009
By Holly J. Wagner
You know that game where you add the words “in bed” after you read your fortune from the fortune cookie? Play it once, and you'll think of it every time. That’s sort of the mood in Myrtle Beach as communities in the area prepare for the annual May biker events.

City officials in Myrtle Beach have piled on a raft of 15 controversial ordinances aimed at curbing rallies in the city. Horry County and some other municipalities have followed suit. The new rules crack down on everything from eyewear and helmets to noise and outdoor gatherings, an effort city officials don’t deny is aimed at pushing bikers out of the city.

Nobody wants to come right out and say the city’s new laws are racially motivated. But whenever people discuss complaints about the rallies, the sentence seems to end with “especially Memorial Day weekend” or “especially Atlantic Beach.” Everyone knows what that means. But that’s only part of the story.

Rally Roots
To understand the tension today, you have to look at the history of motorcycle rallies in Myrtle Beach.

The Carolina Harley-Davidson Dealers Association has held its rallies in the area for 69 years. Over time, the duration of the event grew from a couple of days to closer to a week.

Atlantic Beach, a township known as a beach spot for black visitors since the days of segregation, had been losing its tourism base for decades as emerging civil rights laws ended beach segregation. In 1980 locals decided to start the Memorial Day rally to bring in much-needed cash. To this day, the rally is a main source of revenue for the six-square-block community that seems to teeter perpetually on the brink of bankruptcy.

Four years ago, disputes over traffic enforcement during the rallies prompted the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) to sue Myrtle Beach. The case was resolved with a non-financial settlement that included the city promising to implement the same traffic management plan from 2 p.m. to midnight for three days of each rally.

While official policies remained the same, some rally veterans say law enforcement became lax after the lawsuit, a claim the city’s police department spokesman denies. Over Memorial Day weekend 2008, a Coastal Carolina College student was shot to death in a dispute over a parking space. A Myrtle Beach resident has been charged with the crime, but city officials got the complaints about bike week rowdiness nevertheless.

“Every rally has a group that would like less people, and would like them more under control or eliminated. I guess this was their opportunity,” says Mike Shank, event promoter and marketing director for Myrtle Beach Harley-Davidson. Shank is the plaintiff in one of four lawsuits filed to challenge the new ordinances the city passed last September, especially the helmet law (which conflicts with state law) and a hearing process the city has since agreed to revise. Shank also once did event promotion for the city.

“This has been building for a number of years. That the city finally decided that it didn’t want to be the center of three back-to-back rallies should not surprise anyone,” says Myrtle Beach spokesman Mark Kruea. “The residents came and asked for it.”

The City Council was amending the ordinances as late as April 28 but had made it clear long before that the rallies are no longer welcome in the city of Myrtle Beach. “If these events were three, four five days apiece and spread out a bit, I doubt we’d be having this conversation,” Kruea says. “It’s too big, too loud too long. And sadly, it’s deadly. Typically we would have as many [traffic] fatalities during those three weeks as we had the rest of the year.”

Ebony vs. Ivory? Try Generation Gap
The fact that the two almost-merged May rallies have become known as “Harley Week” and “Black Bike Week” does nothing to soothe raw nerves, and in fact it may obscure another, perhaps more important divide: age.

Traditionally the Cruisin’ the Coast rallies have catered to Harley and metric riders, promoter Sonny Copeland says. Most dealers acknowledge that the H-D crowd borders on the 50-and-over, while other rallies springing up appeal to a younger, sometimes raunchier crowd.

(Bands at the Harley rallies offer one clue: headliners are likely to include Aerosmith, Cheap Trick or Eddie Money, and rally-goers think Black-Eyed Peas and Eminem are snacks.)

“The Bike Weeks are dying down on their own. There is no young generation coming in behind us. There are no young (20- and 30-year-old) people at the Harley rallies,” Copeland says. “Look at the pictures. Everyone’s got gray hair or is going bald.”

With age and affluence, the H-D crowd has turned the parties down a notch.
 
“The people that can afford a $70,000 bike act one way. The people that can afford a $5,000 bike are the young people who are just starting out in their life. They’ve got women on the brain. They [think they’re] bulletproof. But nobody will ever see it that way -- it’s just white and black,” laments “Doghouse Dave” Ankin, who owns the Doghouse North and two other bars in the area. He estimates the Dog House North takes in $1.2 million during the spring rallies each year.

Ankin and others fear the bad publicity will scare off attendees, and there’s some evidence to support their claims.

“There is a lot of negativity in talking to people who say they don’t know if they are coming this year. They aren’t saying it’s the economy,” says Jon Martin, owner of Myrtle West Cycle. “I’m talking to a lot of the custom bike builders, and they are having doubts. They don’t want to come and be harassed.

“The problems of Memorial Day weekend do not lie within the bikers. The problem with Myrtle Beach and Memorial Day weekend is the carloads of people who come in, [who] are drinking in their cars and [who] just come here to party,” he adds. “They’re still coming. They’re not going to get a ticket for not having a helmet or too many bikes in a parking space.”

There’s a bitter irony in this age dilemma. Forty years ago, soldiers were returning from Vietnam, buying Harleys and hitting the road. They shook off conventions, gained a reputation for independence, drugs and uncontrolled hair, and in some cases violent gang activity. For a while, the idea of having to face a cluster of Hells Angels was a national fear.

Today soldiers are returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, buying crotch rockets and hitting the roads. Like the generation before them, they come to party. The U.S. military has acknowledged the new breed of adrenaline junkies the Middle Eastern wars are creating, and is offering special courses for returning soldiers.

“Though the Harley riders are defiant, they do it discreetly and they do it behind closed doors. My customers are always wonderful and respectful,” says “Jamin’ Jamie” Keats, owner of Jamin’ Leather, which provides event maps and an online rally schedule. “They may do their ride around Myrtle Beach and stand on the corner and voice their opinions. That’s all it will be.

“It’s the younger crowd that comes to Myrtle Beach that really scares us,” he says. “They are in their SUVs and swinging guns. [The city] wants to generalize and say it’s bikers, but they forget. It’s the people in cars.”

Even the Carolina Harley-Davidson Dealers Association, which started the area’s rally culture, has moved its 69th rally to New Bern, N.C., to avoid the atmosphere of the bigger rallies.

“We tend to lean more toward a family-style atmosphere vs. the other behavior that goes along with rallies,” says Mark Cox, president of the association. “The mindset is [that] Myrtle Beach offers a lot of partying and bar atmosphere and that type of night life. I enjoy getting into that mix sometimes, too. But we tend to want to keep our rallies more around motorcycling and identifying our HOG members with the dealers.”

Where It All Began?
At Ground Zero of the rally controversy is sleepy, financially strapped and politically impotent Atlantic Beach. The township has just 333 registered voters and leadership is a revolving door. Just 114 people voted in the November presidential election, and only 68 voted in an April 14 special election for a Town Council seat. That seat — slated for a runoff in late April — could control the future of South Carolina’s “Black Pearl.” Or not.

The federal government has shut down one public housing project, which is already reducing voter rolls, and the threat of closing another 40 units of public housing in six months could reduce the township below the 50 voter registrations that give it a right to independent local government. If that happens, it reverts to unincorporated county territory, ripe for annexation by North Myrtle Beach, which surrounds Atlantic Beach, separating it from Myrtle Beach.

Already Myrtle Beach, a political powerhouse by comparison, has made overtures to quell the Memorial Day rally. The city has offered Atlantic Beach help with an ongoing planning and economic development plan in exchange for a crackdown on Bikefest.

“Atlantic Beach officials would tell you that they make money during their bike rally. They get $30,000 to $50,000 of revenue from the event. They have a one-week-a-year economy,” Myrtle Beach’s Kruea says. “The city wanted money to help create a plan for growth and economic development. With that in mind, we would be willing to loan them a planner or two to finish their plan and apply for some grants down the road. I think we were thinking along the lines of in-kind assistance more than cash assistance.”
 
Some rally enthusiasts speculate that by May 2009 Atlantic Beach will have been absorbed into North Myrtle Beach, although that city’s public information officer says no such plans are in place.

“At this point there is not anything to talk about. We’ll see what happens with Atlantic Beach. If that does happen, I’m sure there would be a conversation about how we could help them,” PIO Nicole Aiello says.

The threat might loom larger if state Rep. Tracy Edge succeeds in passing a bill he’s writing that would subject unincorporated areas and tiny municipalities to financial tests. With Atlantic Beach’s continued financial struggles, the bills would create a new avenue of assault on its township status. (Edge has also said he plans to introduce a statewide helmet law.)

Some people describe the city of Myrtle Beach as a grain of sand on the 60-mile Grand Strand that hosts the rallies every May. But this year, it’s the mouse that roared. It launched a domino effect of new rally-curbing ordinances all over Horry County (the “H” is silent). The new rules are creating confusion that threatens to upset the rally world. And that is just fine with Myrtle Beach officials.

‘Bikers Don’t Vote’
"Myrtle Beach is not Daytona, and we don't want to be Daytona," Myrtle Beach Mayor John Rhodes said in his annual address to residents.

Age plays a huge part in politics here. Most of Myrtle Beach’s full-time residents qualify for the early bird specials at Denny’s.

“Retirees are driving all of it. The only people that vote in that town are retirees,” Ankin says. “Everyone else that works in that town doesn’t live in that town. We have condos we stay in when we go to that town, but our residency is somewhere else.”

Myrtle Beach is a college town. A tourist town. A vacation playground. Its sprawling beaches and Old South hospitality have made it a mecca for visitors. Add that Horry County is home to 104 golf courses – some world-class tournament venues – and you start to get the idea: that ain’t Superfly in the plaid pants and tasseled tam.

“Bikers don’t vote,” Martin says. “I think it is about people getting re-elected.

“This has nothing to do with bike week, it has nothing to do with revenue coming in. This has to do with all these people coming down here to retire,” he says. “What they expect is a quiet requirement. Myrtle Beach has been known for bike week for years. It’s been known for spring break. The people who came down to settle here who don’t want to hear the bikes, they are the people who are voting in the City Council and [who are] County Council members.”

Copeland adds that Myrtle Beach’s City Council meets during business hours, which makes it hard for business people to attend meetings.

“They have their meetings during the day when nobody can come but the retirees and the senior citizens,” he says.

Putting the Rev in Revenue
The flagging national economy also complicates matters. Local governments are scrambling to bring in cash, and some people say the rallies have been targets, whether with fine-generating traffic citations or increased vendor fees.

“The City of Myrtle Beach and law enforcement for Myrtle Beach Bike Week 2009 [are] going to work as hard as they can to give out as many tickets as they can — for the revenue,” Copeland says. Most rally visitors will just pay a $100 ticket rather than come back to fight it, he notes.

For all the brouhaha over changes to Myrtle Beach laws, much of the rally activity will remain intact. Few rally events were held inside the city limits before, primarily at the convention center. The new rally- and motorcycle-related ordinances have resulted in about 100 citations so far, according to Myrtle Beach Police Capt. David Knipes. About 60 of those were issued at a Freedom Rally held Feb. 28 to challenge the laws. The city is still working out the adjudication process, so no case has been heard yet. Rally proponents worry more about bad publicity driving off visitors than about the laws themselves.

“The city’s main thing has been a PR campaign more than their ordinances. It’s the publicity of their ordinances,” Shank says. “They are a fraction of what goes on. The problem is that when people come to this area, it’s all been referred to as Myrtle Beach. They don’t know the difference between Myrtle Beach and North Myrtle Beach. If people go to Surfside beach, nobody knows where that is. They think it is all one and the same.”
 
To some extent, it seems to be working.

“Our bookings are steady, but I’d say that if we had not had the bad publicity about the city of Myrtle Beach we would be double that by now,” says Candace Howell, GM of the Myrtle Beach Eaglerider store. The hospitality industry is suffering, too.

As of April 16, vacation home rental reservations in Horry County for the week from Saturday, May 9, to Friday night, May 15, were about 48.4 percent of available units. At the same time last year, reservations were at 71.8 percent occupancy, according to Dr. Taylor Damonte, principle investigator on the Tourism Economy Study and primary author on weekly analysis of tourism business performance in the Myrtle Beach area. He acknowledges that this data is only for vacation home rentals, but says it is an indicator of all lodgings in the area for the rally dates.

(See related story on how the wildfires are further affecting tourism in the area.)

“Every tourism destination tries to maximize positive and minimize negative impacts. If that’s the goal, it will take some time. It won’t happen overnight,” he says. “There will be some loss of business revenue and jobs.”

For those who blame the weak economy, he notes, a six-week rolling average he maintains showed bookings in the same category down 3.5 percent for the six weeks ending April 16.

“The city of Myrtle Beach hotels will not start complaining until after it is over,” Keats says. “When they find out that whatever there is in Garden City and Murrell’s Inlet and everywhere else is full to capacity, then they will say something. They did not want to be politically active.”

That’s not entirely true. A group of area business owners has formed a group called BOOST (Business Owners Organized to Save Tourism). The group, which did not respond by Dealernews press time, on April 11 filed the fourth lawsuit against the city, challenging the new laws. Business owners have filed two lawsuits in federal court and two in state court. So far judges have refused to strike down the laws before a full hearing.

BOOST has taken extra steps to keep the rally going. The group hired an airplane to fly over Daytona Beach Bike Week with a banner promoting Harley Week in Myrtle Beach, and plans a billboard guiding riders to biker-friendly locations. The organization has threatened to field a candidate in the next council election to unseat Mayor Rhodes.

Changes in Horry County are more worrisome for rally organizers because the county has cut the number of vendor permits it will issue to 400 from 600, raised fees by roughly $500 per permit, and cut the duration of permits from 10 to seven days for Harley Week and from seven to four days for the Memorial weekend. Property owners must pay the city a $200 fee (up from $100 in past years) to rent parking spaces on their own properties. The fee hikes have local business owners riled up.

“Why do we have to pay the council and go to three different locations and get permits? It’s unnecessary,” says Keats. “They just want to make money on attraction of people that come to this town, where the landowner can’t make any money.”

Copeland agrees. “It’s $900 this year and they cut them to nearly nothing,” he laments. “This is the only event in the United States that the vending permits are limited the way they are. That hurts us because it limits your ability to do commerce. The way the county has set up the permits, they don’t want the vendors where the people are.”

New Events Starting
Still, not everyone is as eager to chase away hundreds of thousands of potential rally week customers. North Myrtle Beach hasn’t changed its laws, and communities half an hour inland are putting out the welcome mats.

BOOST has pages on website that list biker-friendly restaurants and retailers. Venues that have been on the Bike Week fringe, like Myrtle Beach Speedway and the Horry County Fairground in Loris are planning to host vendors, stunt shows and to offer food and drinks. The speedway will host Rally Days May 11-16 and the fairground will be one end of the North End Run that starts in North Myrtle Beach.

“We’re having live entertainment,” says Ashley White, who operates the fairground. “No vendors, because the permit costs are too high. I haven’t had anybody who thought it would be profitable the first year.”

She doesn’t have plans for Memorial Day weekend, but says she’d love to add events: “I would like to. If anyone is interested and wants to help me put something together and promote it, they can call me.”