Does FollyGras foster ‘drunk beach’ image?

A crowd of revelers filled Center Street for the FollyGras festival on Feb. 21. Some Folly Beach residents would like festival drinking to be indoors at bars and restaurants instead of in the street.

— Complaints about public intoxication and other inappropriate behavior at FollyGras have prompted a City Council review of the future of the festival that drew thousands to Center Street.

Supporters of the event say critics are a vocal minority who have found a sympathetic ear at City Hall. They say FollyGras and other street festivals help businesses in the off-season. But opponents say the city has a real problem on its hands, in part because the festival sends the wrong message about Folly Beach as a place to get drunk.

Mayor Tim Goodwin said he has reached out to the public to gauge sentiment on whether street festival changes need to happen. Goodwin appointed a three-member council committee to hear what the people think about the street festivals and make a recommendation.

“I’m just waiting to see what they come back with,” he said.

At issue is whether the city will continue to close Center Street in its commercial district for FollyGras and four other off-season festivals.

The festival committee has scheduled a Town Hall meeting at 7 p.m. June 11 in City Council Chambers. Folly Beach has posted a related survey questionnaire at its website.

Attorney Keith Bolus, who has an office on Center Street and lives on the island, described FollyGras as a bad idea whose time has passed. He said the city spends $10,000 on extra security for the festival. Bolus said it’s not the city’s job to subsidize business during the off-season with events such as FollyGras.

The festival attracts 10,000 to 12,000 people to a two-block area, he said, estimating that 10 percent of people at the festival are drunk. That represents a serious liability for the city because of the potential for traffic accidents.

“FollyGras represents the worst. The main purpose of the festival is to come to our town and drink. It’s really out of hand,” he said.

The city couldn’t immediately confirm Bolus’ crowd estimates or security costs but expected to have numbers by the Town Hall meeting, Goodwin said.

Bolus said he has talked to Center Street businesses owners who tell him the festival doesn’t help them much.

Residents know traffic is bad from Memorial Day through August. They want a breather from the congestion in the off-season, but the street festivals make it worse, he said.

Bolus said the Christmas Parade is fine, and the Sea & Sand Festival is family-oriented. There are people on the island in favor of FollyGras and those against it. He could not say how many people oppose the festival.

“The next election, we’ll see, if council doesn’t address this issue,” he said.

LaJuan Kennedy, owner and broker-in-charge at Fred Holland Realty, complained of seeing heavily intoxicated people in public and trash left in neighborhoods when Center Street was closed for FollyGras on Feb. 21.

“Not everybody, but there’s enough of them that it causes a problem,” she said.

She worried about longer times for EMS response, a tarnished image for the island and inebriated drivers.

“I just hate for us to be considered a drunk beach,” she said.

The festivals should limit alcohol consumption to bar and restaurant premises, she said. “I know we can do something that makes this a little less of a beerfest and still help the businesses,” she said.

Goodwin appointed Councilman Eddie Ellis as chairman of the committee taking a look at how festivals are managed.

“Nobody on the committee has said we want to get rid of the festivals,” he said.

But some changes could be made, such as outlawing coolers, setting-up port-a-potties to provide more bathroom facilities and requiring wristbands as proof of legal drinking age. Steps could be taken to keep drinkers with open containers of alcohol out of the neighborhoods, Ellis said.

Some 2 percent of festival alcohol and food sales is collected for the island hospitality tax. That money goes to Folly Beach Public Safety, he said.

FollyGras organizer Mary Cunningham said the festival began eight years ago to help the local economy during the lean winter months.

“You can ask any business owner how that has made a huge difference in those months. That festival brings in more money for our businesses than any other because we do not allow any outside vendors,” she said in an email.

“I’m not sure all the residents understand that if our businesses fail, their taxes would go up considerably,” she said.

FollyGras has a colorfully costumed crowd and parade that is patterned after the New Orleans Mardi Gras street celebration, she said. The festival has worked with Public Safety to make changes when problems are identified, she said.

Paul Chrysostom, owner of Mr. John’s Beach Store on Center Street, said the off-season festivals are helpful for business.“If something brings people out in a dead month, then there are more odds of somebody coming in and buying something,” he said.

Street closings for the festivals are acceptable, according to a recent poll. Some 72 percent of 502 people surveyed in April said the frequency of street closings for celebrations is “just enough,” 14 percent said there were too many street closings and 11 percent said there were too few. The rest had no response.

The survey was done as part of a five-year update of the city comprehensive plan.

“That was a strong message from our community to the powers that be to say we love our festivals and we’re not willing to give any of them up,” said Ben Bounds, director of the Sea & Sand Festival.

Folly Beach’s economy has had an average annual growth rate of about 11 percent since 2009. That robust rate is much higher than similar Charleston-area beach communities as well as that of Charleston County, according to a report prepared by the Office of Tourism Analysis at the College of Charleston. The study, released in April, does not estimate the economic impact of the island street festivals.

The festival flap on Folly follows resident complaints about the 2014 St. Patrick’s Day Festival on Sullivan’s Island that prompted City Council to take action. In years past, Middle Street in the commercial district was closed for the street party. That tradition ended in March. Instead, there was a much-smaller celebration with only a side street for outdoor drinking.