CONWAY - Historic Preservation and the Grand Strand aren't mentioned together in many sentences, but that's beginning to change, if ever so slightly.

In recent years, Horry County has come up with an innovative program to record its old cemeteries, to recognize its old businesses and even promote its grand live oak trees.

And it recently renovated an iconic, century-old school building here into the home for the county's museum.

These changes have attracted notice in Columbia, where Gov. Nikki Haley and the Palmetto Trust for Historic Preservation recently gave the county a stewardship award for its new historic preservation plan.

A lot of the county's success has stemmed from the work of senior planner Adam Emrick, who was hired seven years ago to revive the county's preservation work, said Mike Bedenbaugh, director of the Palmetto Trust.

"Adam is doing extraordinary work up there engaging and creating ways for citizens to be engaged in their place. Every year, they come back to us with a whole new thing that they've done that is worth rewarding them for," Bedenbaugh said. "It would definitely be a model for other counties."

An early change

Horry is the only one of South Carolina's 46 counties that has been certified as a local government to handle historic preservation, but the county didn't do much in the first two decades after it got that designation. Then it hired Emrick.

"We were kind of on probation by the state," Emrick said. "We were doing historic preservation, but we weren't actually preserving property. We had zero properties listed on our historic register."

Emrick decided to begin with "low-hanging fruit," specifically a project to record cemeteries - and the contents of their markers. State law already protects cemeteries and mandates public access to them, so the project did not raise the spectre of any restrictions of property rights.

"It's hard to imagine anyone standing up against protecting cemeteries," he added.

The project's importance was underscored when a man appeared at the county's offices in tears, upset at what had happened to his family's cemetery.

A light industrial park with prefabricated warehouses was being built off U.S. Highway 701, and its developer told county officials he was aware of a cemetery on his property and promised to protect it. But the county did not inspect the site before or after the work.

"The last time he (the sad man) had been out there, there were 40-50 wooden markers. What was left was just a few stone markers," Emrick said. "He didn't know what had happened."

The incident just confirmed that the county's new cemetery project was urgently needed. "There was a real apparent disconnect between what we as planners and code enforcement people were doing versus what we're supposed to do," he said.

The county has inventoried about 350 cemeteries and become aware of about 150 more still to be recorded. It currently has more than 200 properties on its historic register - properties subject to the county's Board of Architectural Review. Most of them are cemeteries.

Oaks, businesses and war veterans

The county also has started a Patriot Tree project to try to protect its iconic live oaks and promote the memories of some of its historic soldiers.

Several oaks have a small marker at their base with a soldier's name and a QR code that smartphones can scan and produce information about the solider's story.

"The one thing we try to talk about at every (Patriot Tree) dedication is about how each of these soldiers made a sacrifice to leave everything they knew," Emrick said. "There weren't many slaves in Horry County. It was about the sacrifice that they were willing to make. That's what we're honoring."

But the program also has a rather subliminal preservation goal. "When you put a name with a tree," Emrick said, "it's much harder to cut that tree down."

And the county also has begun a legacy business program that spotlights businesses that have existed for at least 50 years.

"It's more about recognizing the contributions of the county's economic heritage than the built environment," Emrick said, adding that two businesses, including a Chevrolet dealer in downtown Conway, have been recognized.

"We actually had ribbon cuttings and dedications," he said. "What we realized was that when a business opens, we celebrate them with a ton of fanfare, but most businesses don't survive."

Another success

But the county's preservation work extends beyond Emrick's office.

In May, the county held a ceremony to mark the conclusion of a $6.4 million project to renovate the 1905 Burroughs School building as the new Horry County Museum.

The building had stood empty for a decade, but the museum's attendance already is up more than 300 percent over its previous cramped location in an old post office down the street, museum director Walter Hill said.

The renovation kept the exterior and much of the interior intact; the building is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Hill said the one exception is a new helical stair that wraps around a two-tank freshwater aquarium.

"The worst part about turning an old school into a museum was that the staircases and fire staircases aren't necessarily attractive or hospitable," Hill said. "They're not pretty. They're not convenient."

The new metal stair, which supports itself, was lowered through the roof and fixed that problem in dramatic fashion. (Its creation and installation will be featured on Animal Planet's "Tank" show airing Sept. 26).

"That investment is going to give us another 100 years of use out of this building," Hill said. "The building itself is an historic artifact."

The challenge ahead

One of the most prominent buildings ever built in Horry County - the Ocean Forest Hotel in Myrtle Beach - was torn down in 1974, following years of neglect.

While the county's preservation initiatives are winning awards, they cover only the unincorporated areas and not areas inside Myrtle Beach and other municipalities. Conway is the only municipality that has a preservation program in place.

"We are a resort community that prides itself on development and building and attracting tourists," Emrick said. "It is hard to put more regulations on a system that was catering to temporary visitors, basically."

But the county's preservation plan includes more outreach into schools, greater ties with the new museum and other initiatives to get residents more interested in their past - and how to protect and promote it.

"To have a successful program, it isn't just preservation of the built environment. It isn't just preservation of artifacts, which is the museum. It isn't just preservation of the stories. It's a combination of all three," Emrick said. "That's really the way we're functioning right now. Everybody is doing their job. It's really clicking."

Reach Robert Behre at 937-5771.