FOLLY BEACH — On Sunday morning, a group of regulars gathered at the bar at Planet Follywood to commiserate.

Over Bloody Marys, the group exchanged war stories from the day before, when the city of roughly 2,600 full-time residents ballooned to more than 11,000 for one day of celebrating (and drinking) in the streets.

The annual Mardi Gras-themed block party on the storied Center Street left the streets — outside the bar, outside their homes — looking like the aftermath of a fraternity party and spawned 138 calls for service, 27 arrests, 34 citations and more than 100 parking tickets.

The regulars who gathered that morning at the small island beach bar "all looked like hell because they worked Saturday," said Jessie Travis Purvis, 40.

"Everyone ... was just over it," he said. "Everybody had a story."

The group easily arrived at a consensus: Folly Gras had to go.

Little did they know they were only a day away from having their wish come true.

Since Folly Gras' inception, the city welcomed the festival as a cash cow to reinvigorate local businesses during the off season. But after 11 years, city officials have stopped throwing beads and thrown in the towel instead.

Now, Folly wrestles with a question it's faced before: how to best bill their beach town as a family destination rather than the party spot it's widely reputed to be across South Carolina and beyond.

A balancing act: safety and comfort

Alcohol-fueled brouhahas are no new fixture on Folly Beach. Long after other beach towns banned alcohol on their beaches, larger numbers of revelers flocked here since it was the only municipality that still allowed alcohol consumption on the beach.  

“Everyone who lived beyond the Cooper River would drive the extra time to get to Folly Beach because of that,” Folly Beach Mayor Tim Goodwin said. “It kept growing from that.”

Then came the summer of 2012.

It was on the Fourth of July that year when revelers — an estimated 3,000 and 4,000 people, many of whom arrived on tour buses — poured onto a patch of beach smaller than half a football field. Fights broke out, injuring at least four law enforcement officers. Folly Beach law enforcement called it a "riot." 

Dennis Brown, the city's then-public safety chief, pointed to an increased crime rate within the city that year.

Soon after, Folly Beach City Council banned alcohol on the beach. It marked a turning point for the island, officials and residents say, both officially and culturally — the beginning of a pivot away from its identity as a party destination. The effects were swift and noticeable. 

During the first six months of the ban, hospitality and accommodations revenues were down across the board, the mayor said, though the same businesses have seen a steady uptick in the years since.

Events such as Folly Gras were a saving grace for local shops, restaurants and bars during the off-season, especially in February, the city's slowest month of the year, said Steve Carroll, president of the Folly Beach Association of Business.

“It can be up to a third of a business’ month in that one day,” Carroll said of the earning potential associated with Folly Gras.

But that profit, festival critics say, came with the cost of compromising public safety and comfort.

Despite enhanced safety measures this year — like 71 additional security officers, added barricades, and bans on pets, bicycles and outside alcohol — Folly Gras was not immune to problems. Problems that have worsened during the last few years, according to Carroll. 

During this year's event, one woman gained viral notability across social media when she was captured on camera kicking a man in the face, knocking him out cold; he was seen in the video wrestling a man to the ground. She was among the more than two-dozen charged with a crime that day.

Large swaths of attendees at Folly’s seasonal festivals, from Folly Gras to the Sea and Sand Festival and Follypalooza, are not island residents, Carroll said, emphasizing that only about 600 of this year’s Folly Gras attendees were local. 

“That lady who kicked the bouncer in the head was from the West Columbia area,” Goodwin said. “They came from all over because social media had really advertised us as the place to go if you’re not going to New Orleans or Key West for Mardi Gras.”

Goodwin added, “When you have social media advertising you all up and down the East Coast as the No. 1 place to celebrate Mardi Gras, it’s terrible. You can’t contain the number of people that shows up. The only good thing about the party buses was that those people weren’t driving home drunk because they didn’t have a car."

By party bus, car or ride-share, revelers came, saw and partied. That was the goal, but for the Folly Beach Association of Business, the organizers, the mayor and many Folly Beach residents, the fun went too far. 

“No one wants that type of behavior in their place or on their street or in their community,” Goodwin said of the drunken crowd that drove most families out of the festival gates before noon. “There’s no place for it anywhere, really.”

In addition to drawing an unsavory crowd, Carroll said the event has simply outgrown Folly Beach. The size of the crowds that flood Center Street rivaled the total number of visitors that come to the island on a given day during the summer season (about 16,000). And Folly Gras is confined to a few blocks, not spread out across the island's shore.

Looking ahead

For future festivals, Goodwin said city officials will look at whether to continue to allow the consumption of alcohol on the streets. 

“People can still come and enjoy the restaurants and bars and act with the proper behavior and take care of the city and citizens who live here,” Goodwin said. “There’s no reason we can’t all have a good time.”

The way Purvis sees it, another festival or large-scale event will inevitably replace Folly Gras. 

"We like festivals. We like a good time, but it needs to be geared toward more of a family-oriented situation because this is the only one that gets out of hand," he said. "People are tired of it. It's over. And we're all still young at heart and love to party. (But) all of us are really tired of it together."

In the days after Folly Gras ended, Purvis and his fellow Center Street regulars found themselves enjoying the quiet. 

"So, whatever," said Purvis, who works the late shift at Snapper Jacks bar. "Take the festival, and leave me alone."

Sign up for our daily newsletter

Get the best of The Post and Courier, handpicked and delivered to your inbox every morning.


Reach Michael Majchrowicz at 843-937-5591. Follow him on Twitter @mjmajchrowicz.

Michael Majchrowicz is a reporter covering crime and public safety. He previously wrote about courts for the Daily Hampshire Gazette in Northampton, Massachusetts. A Hoosier native, he graduated from Indiana University with a degree in journalism.

Kalyn Oyer is a Charleston native who covers arts and entertainment for The Post and Courier's Thursday edition, Charleston Scene. She used to write about music for the Charleston City Paper and Scene SC.

We're improving out commenting experience.

We’ve temporarily removed comments from articles while we work on a new and better commenting experience. In the meantime, subscribers are encouraged to join the conversation at our Post and Courier Subscribers group on Facebook.