I recently reconnected with an old high school friend. Cynthia Powell (neé Swanson) was a year ahead of me, a cheerleader, the sweetheart of the Class of ’67. She went on to college, marriage, and motherhood. The marriage didn’t stick, but she now has two grown daughters and runs her own business in Myrtle Beach. And now she has a new project: she is running for Myrtle Beach City Council on the slogan, “Take Back the Month of May.”
In case you don’t know about Myrtle Beach and the month of May, here is a brief primer: the Grand Strand hosts two enormous motorcycle rallies each May. Roads are choked and sleep is disrupted for weeks. Some businesses refuse to open and many residents simply leave town for much of the month.
Both rallies started years ago as essentially long-weekend events, but over time they expanded across the calendar to take up half the month. And they expanded in numbers, from a few thousand bikers to a few hundred thousand.
So what’s wrong with a bunch of bikers having a little fun, you ask?
It seems a lot of people in Myrtle Beach have finally reached the conclusion that a “little fun” has gotten out of hand. It started two years ago when Brad Dean came to town as the new head of the Myrtle Beach Area Chamber of Commerce. It seems no one warned him what he was in for during his first spring on the job. When the waves of bikers hit town, Dean was stunned, appalled, incredulous.
How can you let this happen in your beautiful beach town, he demanded? In a town where the tourist dollar is king, this was close to heresy. But apparently he was onto something.
Under Dean’s direction, the Chamber sent out a questionnaire to its member businesses, asking three questions: 1) Do you consider motorcycle rallies to be favorable or unfavorable for business? 2) Do you do more business or less business when motorcycle rallies are in town? 3) Do you think motorcycle rallies set up a “reputational risk” for Myrtle Beach?
In the past, such surveys had drawn a one- or two-percent return rate. This one drew an astounding 24 percent. And the results were overwhelming: Approximately 70 percent of respondents answered 1) unfavorable, 2) less and 3) yes, respectively.
Shortly after this, the local daily Sun News held an online survey to ask if the rallies should be shut down or curtailed. Seventy percent of respondents said yes.
But who was going to take this message to City Hall? That’s where Cynthia Powell comes in. A political novice, she announced her candidacy for city council and her one-plank platform: to control the biker rallies.
Winning the seat next month is secondary, she told me. “My real goal is to bring this issue to the forefront.”
Apparently she is succeeding. Two of the three mayoral candidates have jumped on the anti-biker bandwagon and an incumbent council member seeking reelection announced that he was willing to turn the Myrtle Beach Convention Center into a jail, if that’s what it took to get the bikers under control.
Let’s hope nothing so draconian is necessary, but it looks like the tide has finally turned in Myrtle Beach. A task force set up to study the biker problem came back with a list of recommendations that included increasing police presence; establishing a zero-tolerance policy on all violations of law, including violations of noise ordinances; denial of roadside vendor permits in the city and county; and refusal to lease the municipal convention center to motorcycle groups.
It will take a lot of work and the cooperation of all Grand Strand municipalities and Horry County. If it works, the folks to the north may finally get a grip on the blight that descends on them each May.
“When it started out, nobody minded it,” Powell said. “It was pretty fun; it just lasted a few days. Now the whole (biker) thing has just grown and grown and it’s just gotten out of control.”
But Myrtle Beach’s success may be Charleston’s curse. When hundreds of thousands of bikers get kicked off the Grand Strand, where will they go?
Three years ago, the Holy City hosted the first Heritage Motorcycle Rally. It was fairly small. Nobody minded. Just some good old bikers having a little fun keeping Charleston awake at night. But if they should be joined by biker refugees from the north, we could have a major problem. Let’s hope our police and city leaders are smart enough to learn from Myrtle Beach’s experience. We shouldn’t have to endure this invasion for years before we take action.