South Carolina Rushes to Tamp Down Violence in Myrtle Beach

By Cameron McWhirter Features Dow Jones Newswires

Just as summer is ramping up, Myrtle Beach, a top South Carolina summer destination, is dealing with a flurry of violence that has city and state officials scrambling to calm worried visitors and residents.

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In the city's most prominent incident, at least seven people were injured in a June 18 shooting that was live-streamed on Facebook. That shooting -- and two others that weekend -- followed six over the Easter holidays in April.

The violence prompted South Carolina's Republican Gov. Henry McMaster to visit the city not long after and order steps to beef up security, such as bringing in officers and staff to support local police. The city, meanwhile, has placed barricades along Ocean Boulevard, the beach's central artery where the June shooting happened.

"Whatever it takes to make sure that this aberration does not take place again," Gov. McMaster said. "Our tourism industry is huge; it's very important to us."

The state estimates that tourism is a $20.2 billion industry in the Palmetto State, generating about $1.5 billion in state and local tax revenues in 2015, according to the latest data available.

Tourism drives Myrtle Beach's local economy, and each group visiting the city spends about $2,766, according to the Myrtle Beach Area Chamber of Commerce.

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The Grand Strand, a group of South Carolina beach communities which includes Myrtle Beach, has seen an increase in tourism in recent years, with arrivals via plane rising 6% in 2016 from the year before, according to data from Myrtle Beach International Airport. The vast majority of visitors drive to Myrtle Beach from the Southeast.

With only about 32,000 year-round residents, Myrtle Beach becomes "a relatively large city" every summer and the police force hasn't grown enough to meet current needs, said Brad Dean, president of the chamber. He estimated that the number of visitors to the area rose 24%, to 18 million, in 2016 from 2011. The city's year-round population is estimated to have grown 19% since 2010, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

"We need to invest in law enforcement to remain a safe and welcoming community," Mr. Dean said. It was too soon to assess the "reputational damage to our community" caused by the violence, but some businesses have seen "a small number of cancellations," he said.

Mr. Dean said the chamber, which handles marketing for the area, was ready to divert funds for more police. "I can message safety much better than I can message mayhem," he said.

The police department had 296 employees in the 2015-2016 fiscal year, up from 276 five years earlier, according to the City of Myrtle Beach records, while the total police budget rose 38% over that time.

At the same time, smaller beach towns along the Atlantic coast have seen more people coming to their area in recent years because they are more family-focused, quieter and safer, said Debbie Smith, a real-estate agent and mayor of Ocean Isle Beach, N.C.

According to Ms. Smith, after the videotaped shooting in Myrtle Beach, one couple there left their motel and drove to Ocean Isle Beach and rented a vacation property from her. "If I was staying down in Myrtle Beach, [the violence] would make me think twice," she said.

Ms. Smith said her community of 650 year-round residents -- which swells to about 25,000 during the summer season -- won't know if business has increased until the season is over. Ms. Smith said her town, lined by a string of old beach cottages and new low-rise condominiums, tries to focus on family visitors.

"We're not very hospitable if you have a throw-down party all weekend," she said.

Myrtle Beach, however, has grown into a large resort center in recent years, with tall condo buildings, large hotels and attractions that include dinner theaters and a large Ferris wheel that looks out at the ocean. The Grand Strand area is well known for hosting thousands of motorcyclists during bike weeks in the late spring. This weekend the area will have numerous large fireworks celebrations, a golf cart parade and a patriotic festival that will include a flyover by military fighter airplanes.

The city has dealt with outbreaks of violence in the past. In 2014, police responded to at least eight shootings over the Memorial Day weekend when groups of bikers visited the beach community.

At a special city council meeting following the recent shootings, some people called for Republican Mayor John Rhodes and other officials to resign. Mr. Rhodes didn't return calls for comment.

Mark McBride, a waiter, longtime resident and former mayor, said the city government has been ignoring a growing violence problem for too long. A large portion of local taxes are spent on advertising to bring tourists to the area, but not enough is being spent to make sure the city has enough police to handle the crowds, he said.

"The priority should be public safety and not advertising," he said.

Write to Cameron McWhirter at cameron.mcwhirter@wsj.com

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

July 01, 2017 08:14 ET (12:14 GMT)