MYRTLE BEACH — A controversial redevelopment project is facing resistance from newly elected council members, leaving the question of how the city will rehabilitate an area recently known for high-profile crime and disgruntled property owners.
Eleven buildings on the superblock, in the heart of downtown Myrtle Beach, were bought earlier this year in an effort to locate a new library and children's museum there. But Mayor-elect Brenda Bethune is opposed to demolishing the buildings for the plan.
The project has made the block — the site of several shootings in recent years — a focal point of city efforts to redevelop a downtown area with multiple empty lots and storefronts.
But while some are hopeful that new leadership will herald a change in the area's fortunes, many property owners remain skeptical after decades of failed approaches to revitalize their neighborhood.
"The area’s still not viable," said Allen Deaton, who sold his building on Nance Plaza to the city after owning it for 40 years. "It’s not vibrant, it’s not sustainable. It’s going to take a big project to turn that around."
At the same time, a different deal on Main Street, just around the corner, could kick-start revitalization.
Coastal Carolina University, which is reaching the end of its lease for a theater facility on 79th Avenue North, has toured a building on Main Street as a possible new location, according to the building's owner.
"The college walked through twice with all the powers that be, and they had nothing but smiles on their faces," said Rik Dickinson, owner of Encore Video Productions at 811 Main St. "They said it would work nicely for them."
City Manager John Pedersen said he has talked with CCU officials about the idea, and Brown Bethune, Brenda Bethune's husband, confirmed that he's helping to broker the sale. CCU has not made a commitment to buy the property, but Brenda Bethune said the building, which was once Myrtle Beach's only movie theater, could anchor a downtown arts district.
"If that does come about, I think that could be the starter catalyst for that area that we need, and a great partnership between the city and Coastal," she said.
City officials have also been in discussions with the Burroughs & Chapin Co. Inc. about potentially leasing a 12-acre site directly across Kings Highway that was once home to the Pavilion amusement park. City Council was made privy to the talks a month and a half ago, according to outgoing Councilman Randal Wallace, who said the idea was to put an amphitheater there.
Project slows down
In January, the plan to put a library and branch of children's museum EdVenture on 9th Avenue was presented by Mayor John Rhodes as a fix to two pressing issues: a replacement for the city's worn-down library and the redevelopment of an area that had seen several high-profile shootings in recent years.
But some landowners were left feeling alienated when City Council voted 5-2 to authorize the use of eminent domain to buy two properties. Eminent domain allows government to acquire private land for a public purpose, even when the owners don't want to sell. The city hasn't forced the sale of those two remaining properties so far.
Paul Dominick, a Charleston-based attorney with Nexsen Pruet, said it's unclear if a children's museum could even be considered a "public purpose."
"I think certainly somebody could have grounds to challenge that," he said. "It’s just a question of how much money they want to spend to do it."
The rest of the purchases were made with a line of credit held by the Downtown Redevelopment Corp., a nonprofit arm of the city. The group spent more than $3 million in loaned funds on land. Because the properties were purchased by the DRC, City Council never publicly voted on the project or land acquisitions, even though the city will have to pay back the loan.
“If I had a to do it over again, I would have started with a conversation of a common vision," said Councilwoman Mary Jeffcoat, one of the most vocal advocates for a new library. "But remember, we were under the gun to do something to take care of crime in that area, and we put this project on fast forward to take care of crime.”
What will City Council do?
Myrtle Beach had already received interest in the library project from eight architectural firms, but a meeting to evaluate the architects was canceled last week as the city manager waits for more direction from City Council.
Current and incoming members of the panel had varying opinions on whether the project should continue. Jeffcoat said council members need to have further discussion on what will go in the spot.
"I do not want to push the library and the children’s museum through on a 4 to 3 vote," Jeffcoat said. "That’s not the kind of project you do on 4 to 3, even if I had four votes."
Councilman Phil Render said he favored getting a new quote to fix the library's old building. A 2016 estimate put the cost at $3.6 million.
Bethune said she opposes the plan, and Councilman-elect Gregg Smith said he wants a new library but is unsure if it should go in that spot. Councilman Mike Lowder and Councilwoman-elect Jackie Vereen did not return multiple phone messages seeking comment, but Vereen said in a debate in October that she supported a new library in a different location.
Councilman Mike Chestnut said the superblock project was important for an area where landowners have not been able to restart development themselves but was willing to listen to other ideas.
"I'm open-minded enough to listen to what anybody has to say, and if you've got a better mousetrap, I'm willing to look at the mousetrap," he said.
Creating an arts district
For Andrew Paulussen, this fall's election is "when the noose came off of my neck, so to speak."
Paulussen and his wife own House Parts at 801 N. Kings Highway, one of the two properties in the footprint of the proposed library and museum complex that had not been sold to the city. He's hopeful that the new City Council won't approve of eminent domain to force the sale of his building.
"When we bought this building and decided to put our business here, we knew that the area at some point would be ripe for redevelopment, and we wanted to be a part of that redevelopment, not be displaced by it,” he said.
Mayor-elect Bethune has suggested creating the arts district that could result from CCU moving its theater to Main Street, and possibly closing that street to create a parking lot or green space there.
Chuck Martino, chairman of the DRC, said the concept could be aided by relocating the Franklin G. Burroughs-Simeon B. Chapin Art Museum to the area.
"There’s been a discussion that the building that the art museum is in may not be suitable for the long term, so the idea is, do we move the art museum into the superblock?" he said.
He also said that putting an amphitheater on the Pavilion site would fit with an arts theme. That land, between 9th and 8th Avenues north, has sat largely empty since 2007, leaving other investors in the area uncertain about the future of a prime piece of real estate.
The details of the city leasing the land are in the early stages, Martino and Wallace said.
Meanwhile, preserving the buildings on 9th Avenue, as Bethune suggested, could be a challenge. At least some need repairs to meet code, Martino said. And the Main Street building that might house CCU's theater has been renovated since its days as a cinema to create office space, Dickinson said.
"There’s substantial construction inside with the two stories and all the offices," Dickinson said. "It’s going to cost them quite a bit to demolish all that and haul it away before they can (convert) it into a theater."