- The Washington Times - Friday, December 16, 2005

MYRTLE BEACH, S.C. — Driving along the shore, one is tempted by a thousand delights: Buccaneer Bay miniature golf, Mr. Fireworks’ sparklers and the Legends Tribute Theater with its large sign showing the Blues Brothers.

More than 1,800 restaurants include everything from Crabby Mike’s Calabash Seafood and Angelo’s Steak House — claiming “greatest steaks in the universe” — to the Omega Pancake and Waffle House.

The Myrtle Beach area, with its golf courses, campgrounds, water slides and beachwear shops, has long been known as a family place — a blue-collar beach to some, a redneck Riviera to the less charitable.

In the middle of a 60-mile reach of beaches known as the Grand Strand, the area attracts an estimated 13 million vacationers a year.

However, as development in one of South Carolina’s fastest-growing areas continues unabated, the beach is slowly changing.

High-rise hotels and condominiums stud the shore where mom-and-pop motels stood 20 years ago. The beach was once largely deserted after Labor Day, but now most hotels remain open year-round.

Tourists flock to dinner theaters, and buses bring Christmas shoppers to outlet malls with upscale stores. Broadway at the Beach, a sprawling shopping and entertainment complex, has a Hard Rock Cafe, Victoria’s Secret and a massive aquarium.

The $200 million Coastal Grand will be the state’s largest shopping mall when all 1.5 million square feet are finished.

For nearly 20 years, Jackie Redding’s family has operated the Sea Banks Motor Inn, a modest three-story motel shadowed by high-rises along Ocean Boulevard. She worries that development is sweeping away smaller motels long identified with the beach.

“I think within the next five to 10 years, you’re not going to see many of us,” she says. “Wouldn’t that be sad?”

That may make it harder for working folks to find affordable rooms near the ocean. Rising property values also may push out locally owned restaurants, she says.

“I’m hoping that’s not going to be true,” says Miss Redding, who, at the height of the season, rents a double for just $76 a night. “We’re just going to be diverse, but I think we will still have the workingman’s beach.”

Locals have been debating about Myrtle Beach’s future for years, says Brad Dean, president of the area Chamber of Commerce.

“Some say we’re blue-collar, middle-class America, and do we want to be high-end? Others say we are high-end and can still attract middle-class America,” Mr. Dean says.

Increasingly, there is a trend toward luxury properties. The Sheraton Myrtle Beach Convention Center Hotel and Marriott’s luxury oceanfront Ocean Watch are recent examples.

Baby boomers scarf up condominiums for bargain prices compared with those in the Northeast. Many are being managed as “condotels” — privately owned but rented as hotel units.

Mary Schmidt, a 48-year-old Myrtle Beach native, moved back last year after 15 years in Washington.

“I was in shock,” she says. “Myrtle Beach has gotten too commercial. To start with, there is too much high-rise and too much business. It’s not down-home.”

Growing up, Mrs. Schmidt used to ride her minibike, drink Boone’s Farm wine and camp out along a dirt road across town — a road that has become the busy U.S. 17 bypass where Broadway at the Beach stands.

The Gay Dolphin Gift Cove has been as much a part of a vacation here as sunburn for nearly six decades. Billed as the East Coast’s largest gift shop, the oceanfront emporium stocks 60,000 items, from Beanie Babies to shark-tooth jewelry.

“We have been very blessed with the people who have vacationed here and … are so attached to the store they bring their children in,” says owner Buz Plyler.

He doesn’t see the workingman’s beach eroding, but rather “becoming more diverse, focusing on two markets instead of focusing on what has been one.”

Mr. Plyler says that as more and more condos are built, supply and demand will help lower rental prices.

The debate over the beach’s image is reflected in the ongoing controversy over bikers. Each year, tens of thousands of them flock to the area for the predominantly white Harley-Davidson rally in mid-May and the Atlantic Beach Bikefest, attracting mostly black riders, during Memorial Day weekend.

The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People has sued, saying the city discriminates with more restrictive traffic controls during the black bike rally.

Theater owners and golf promoters complain that both rallies are bad for business, although bars and beer distributors welcome them.

“We don’t care what color you are. They mean a tremendous amount to our economy,” Miss Redding says.

The issue requires a balance for an area promoting a family beach image while dealing with events that may not appeal to all, Mr. Dean says. “It’s ultimately a one-color issue — and that’s green.”

The growing pains reflect a destination that has come very far, very fast, says Taylor Damonte, director of the Clay Brittain Jr. Center for Resort Tourism at nearby Coastal Carolina University.

“We have gone from nothing to 80,000 lodging units … with most of it done in the past 20 years,” he says.

Some might consider bright lights and beachwear shops, well, tacky. “I don’t think that we are tacky,” Miss Redding says. “I just think we have so much for so many different types of people. The people who come love doing some of this stuff, and they love having the variety.”

Ultimately, tacky is in the eyes of the beholder.

“I live in Albuquerque. What is tacky?” says Melba Roy, a writer and musician visiting the area. In her town, she says, “it’s not uncommon to pass plastic pink flamingos all over the place.”

• • •

Myrtle Beach Chamber of Commerce: www.mbchamber.com; 800/356-3016.

Gay Dolphin Gift Cove, 916 N. Ocean Blvd., Myrtle Beach; www.gaydolphin.com; 843/448-6550.

Broadway at the Beach, 1325 Celebrity Circle, Myrtle Beach, on U.S. 17 bypass between 21st Avenue North and 29th Avenue North. Stores, restaurants, hotels and entertainment; www.broadwayatthebeach.com.

Sea Banks Motor Inn, 2200 S. Ocean Blvd., Myrtle Beach; www.seabanks.com; 800/523-0603. Rates: October-March, $22 to $35; March-September, $28 to $92.

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