For decades we have witnessed the changes in our beautiful coastal environment. We have seen the rising tide of tourism and immigration from northern states, first with pride and pleasure, later with apprehension.
The problem with the southeastern shore is that it is too beautiful for its own good. And with the rising tide of humanity descending upon us, every new house, parking lot, strip mall, and stormwater drain represents a threat to the very way of life that drew these people here in the first place.
Some coastal cities have not handled the changes well. Myrtle Beach has long been the poster child for coastal development run amok. This is not surprising in a state famous for its low taxes and fierce anti-regulatory culture.
Today, Folly Beach is facing some of the growing pains associated with coastal development. Traffic is a major problem in the beach town just south of Charleston. On a busy summer weekend, thousands of cars come to the little island. Traffic sometimes backs up more than a half-mile approaching the bridge into the town. Parking in residential areas and speeding on the straight, flat streets in Folly are a constant source of annoyance and concern. A young man was killed in a collision in the heart of town last summer.
To address some of these problems, Folly Beach recently contracted Wilbur Smith Associates, the noted urban planner, to take a look at the situation and make recommendations. A couple of Wilbur Smith representatives were in town last week for an open meeting of residents, and they got an earful about everything from noise and traffic to litter on the beach and a lack of public restrooms. Driving the public anger was the perception that local businesses and city government are always trying to bring more tourists to town. It seems that too much is never enough when it comes to tourism.
What Folly Beach is going through right now, Myrtle Beach has been experiencing for years. I was living in Myrtle Beach in 1999 when Wilbur Smith consulted on a major makeover of the downtown district. They did a pretty good job, I guess. They closed some streets, rerouted some traffic, created a tiny park. But engineering those minuscule changes at ground zero of one of the largest tourism bombs in the nation was truly like rearranging the proverbial deck chairs on the Titanic.
The flood of tourists has only grown more intense and more disruptive in the past decade, culminating this year with Myrtle Beach’s bold steps to keep the two May motorcycle rallies out of town. Did it succeed? Owners of hotels, bars and strip clubs say it was a disaster. They love the biker crowds, no matter how loud, violent, and obnoxious they are.
A lot of ordinary residents who teach school, sell life insurance, and work at the grocery store think otherwise. So does the influential golf industry, which mixes with motorcycles like water mixes with oil.
What we see in Myrtle Beach is the maturation of a movement that has been growing in tourist towns for years. That’s the movement of ordinary citizens, not in the tourism industry, who are tired of having their sleep interrupted, their streets clogged with traffic, their yards used as chamber pots, their jails filled, and their beaches trashed by rude, crude, and violent people. In time we may see such an uprising in Folly Beach, but for now tourism interests seem firmly in control.
As for Charleston, tourists can be a pain in the butt, to be sure. There are too many drunks in the tourist district, and there seem to be more motorcycles in town every year. But to put this in perspective, Charleston is an old port city. Drunken sailors have been lurching and brawling on our streets for centuries and wicked women have been separating them from their money in the most indecorous ways. Nothing happens on Market Street that would shock a resident from, say, 1800.
Today, on the eve of Piccolo Spoleto and Spoleto Festival USA, is the time to remember how good we have it here in the Holy City. Spoleto is one of the premier tourist attractions in the nation, drawing a well-heeled and well-behaved crowd for 17 days of world-class cultural events. That’s something that merchants and residents can both feel good about.
South Carolina long ago made a deal with the devil. We would become the playground for much of the East Coast and the Midwest. In return, those visitors would bring billions of dollars into our underdeveloped economy. It has worked pretty well for a long time, but we may be reaching the limits of what the land can absorb and what local residents can endure.