Party buses let the good times roll

With flashy lights, cozy leather seats, built-in bars and a kickin’ sound system, Nick Miller’s Party Bus Charleston can host up to 30 people for a carousing cruise on Lowcountry roads.Miller’s mobile gathering spot is one of more than a half-dozen party buses to hit the roads around Charleston in recent years, offering plush rides for those want to celebrate in style.But the buses have drawn some unwelcome scrutiny in recent days following a Fourth of July gathering on Folly Beach that turned into a booze-fueled riot. Four buses showed up at the beach that day, disgorging dozens of drunken revelers and a disc jockey, authorities said.Just where those buses came from remains the subject of much speculation and rumor. They have been described as the bigger-style tour buses, and none of the local party-bus services contacted Wednesday had anything that large in their fleets.A number of party buses offer service to Folly. But two prominent companies contacted Wednesday said the Folly runs make up only a small part of their business, and their rigs would likely draw little notice from locals.“We did some runs to Folly on the Fourth of July, but luckily they weren’t part of the problems that happened,” said Miller, who also operates a 20-seat party bus. “We don’t bring massive amounts of people in and drop them off.”Some residents blame an Atlanta-based event company called A.M.P. and a South Carolina-based clothing company called Good Ole Boys for organizing the Independence Day party, but A.M.P. has denied that is the case.The company posted a statement on its Facebook page Monday stating that “independent suppliers of ‘party buses’ have confirmed that all of the buses were rented by different individuals at different times and with different pickup locations.“This is a custom that has gone on for several years, since the traffic is heavy to Folly and riding a bus is the best safe way to get to the beach especially for those that are drinking,” the statement read.Reaction to the buses has been mixed on Folly. Some worry about the potential for busing in large groups of drunken visitors. Others see some promise in companies offering shuttle options that keep drunken drivers off the road and reduce car traffic.“Looks like about twenty five less cars to park on our yards to me!” one resident wrote on the Follitics Facebook page for islanders.Party buses have become big business in larger cities around the country. In Charleston the trend has been a bit slower to catch on, but bus services say they are busy on weekends.Most allow riders to drink while on board, but they must bring their own alcohol. Depending on size and amenities, the buses can command rates of upwards of $150 an hour.Tracey Pendleton is sales manager for Tri County Transport, which operates The Monster Party Bus and two similar rigs. Pendleton said her company’s party buses mainly transport wedding parties, prom-goers, birthday attendees and the like.Most trips to Folly are to pick up large families in town for vacation, she said.“Our guests are mature adults and don’t have any issues,” she said. “We just try to make it easier for them to get where they’re going and have fun.”

FOLLY BEACH — Alcohol on the beach became illegal overnight, but authorities enforcing the new law know that compliance might come more gradually.

Wednesday marked the first day of a 60-day booze ban on Folly Beach and an end to the island’s run as the only local beach that allowed drinking on the sand.

Karla Mueller and Jana Crawford, sisters visiting from Ohio, learned about the emergency ordinance Wednesday afternoon from their bartender at the The Tides tiki bar.

“We thought this would be a great vacation destination, because it’s the only place where you can drink on the beach,” Mueller said. The pair chose Folly instead of Charleston for that very reason.

Now, taking a drink out on the sand could cost as much as $1,092 in fines.

The emergency ordinance came after residents packed City Hall Tuesday, demanding that their elected officials help keep their island cleaner and safer.

For years, Folly Beach has battled against weekend warriors urinating and vomiting in yards, leaving trash behind and disturbing residents’ routines.

The problem culminated on the Fourth of July with a gathering that law enforcement officers later described as a “riot.” The event left in its wake more than 100 bags of garbage, a handful of injured public safety officers and a stack of arrest reports.

Days earlier, the Folly newsletter “The Sandspur” printed a message warning residents about people who doctor drinks with date-rape drugs, sell crack cocaine and hallucinogenic “bath salts” and systematically break into homes.

Residents rallied for an alcohol ban to keep out people who come to their hometown for the sole purpose of getting wasted.

Public Safety Chief Dennis Brown said city officials ordered 61 signs announcing the alcohol ban at beach access points and illuminated signs on the causeway leading onto Folly.

He plans to station public safety officers at key entry points to remind people with coolers about the new law.

“We’re not going to search coolers,” Brown said. “We can’t do that legally.”

But if an officer spots someone with alcohol on the beach, he can impose a fine ranging from $250 to $1,092. The price comes at the officer’s discretion and will be based largely on the offender’s attitude.

“One of the first steps is going to be education,” Brown said. “You can’t correct years of behavior overnight.”

Folly’s Public Safety Department comprises 16 full-time officers, a limited staff to deal with an estimated 60,000 people who pack the beach on busy summer weekends.

Asked if the new law will pull those officers away from more pressing problems, Brown said his department will prioritize its calls and respond to each of them accordingly.

Folly Beach City Council meets again tonight to discuss adding a referendum to the November general-election ballot that would let residents decide whether to make the alcohol ban permanent. What happens between the end of the 60-day emergency ordinance and Election Day remains unclear.

Mayor Tim Goodwin said city officials will consider a possible extension of the ban in those interim months.

“We just need to look at where we are at that point,” he said. Until then, authorities are scrambling to get the word out fast, Goodwin said, with signs, calls to real estate agents and a strong public safety presence.

“We’re not going to have alcohol-sniffing dogs on the beach,” Goodwin said. “(Officers are) not going to wander up to your cooler unless they have probable cause ... but they’re not going to hand out cups anymore.”

Until Tuesday’s City Council vote, residents and visitors could bring alcohol to the beach as long as they kept their drinks in a plastic cup.

The Charleston RiverDogs baseball team capitalized on the news with an announcement Wednesday that tonight’s game would include a beer station near its sandy area called Shoeless Joe’s Hill.

“If you want to enjoy an ice cold beer with some sand between your toes, then Joseph P. Riley Jr. Park is now the only legal place in the Lowcountry you can do so,” the statement said.

Some beachgoers wondered if other islands would ramp up patrols this weekend after Folly’s ban. Isle of Palms Police Chief Tom Buckhannon said his department plans for business as usual moving forward.

“Nothing is going to change because of Folly,” Buckhannon said. When it comes to sneaking alcohol onto the beach, he added, “people always try to do that.”

Reach Allyson Bird at 937-5594.