MOUNT PLEASANT — Brett Elrod was 11 when he took his first job at the Shem Creek shrimp docks, shoveling ice onto a conveyor belt to move to the boats.
That meant keeping up with the moving belt. And the funniest thing was, he could do it so long as the ice was piled high enough to knock off pieces onto the belt with the shovel blade, he said recently with a grin.
Once the ice pile got too low, he had to shovel and couldn't keep up.
Elrod's situation now isn't too far removed. The man who holds the fate of the creek's Wando shrimp dock doesn't want it all in his hands. He wants "everybody to pitch in together," he said, to remake the place.
The custom builder just might be the one to make that happen.
Elrod, 41, a lifelong Mount Pleasant resident, has stepped in to buy one of the last shrimp boat docks on the town's picturesque tourism creek.
What he does with the 1-acre lot and 350 feet of dock space might decide the future of the hard-pressed shrimp boat fleet on the creek where its hanging nets have become a hallmark.
That's the creek where his uncle, Tony Bennett, once ran a head boat — a daily charter that took people by the dozens to fish offshore — and tied up alongside the shrimpers for whom Elrod shoveled ice. The commercial fishing docks were his hangout when he was growing up.
He doesn't want to lose that, he said.
Today, the docks are disappearing across the state because of development pressures on the lucrative waterfront properties. Shem Creek has become a mix of upscale residences, waterfront restaurants and water sports businesses, one by one edging out the shrimp boats.
The Wando dock is one of the creek's last three privately owned shrimp boat docks. It now moors five boats — about half the remaining Shem Creek fleet. Losing it could mean those boats would have nowhere else to tie off, much less sell their shrimp. It also could put more development pressure on the owners of the other two.
Elrod has stepped into the dilemma after making a name for himself in building projects that have included Charleston Harbor docks, beach cabanas, residential decks and offices, as well as homes and renovations in Charleston's historic district.
One of his recent clients was Ted Fienning, whose home on Murray Boulevard was a complicated build that Fienning knew had to be done right, considering the historic homes around it.
"(Elrod) is a consummate professional. He's local, so he's conscious of the sensitivities here," Fienning said.
Elrod, for his part, isn't comfortable with a spotlight on him. On a recent morning, he was in a dusty shirt with dust on his red beard, studying blueprints on the ground, among the beams of the torn-out floor of a home being restored in the trendy Mazyck-Wraggborough neighborhood on the Charleston peninsula.
He'd rather keep his head down and do the job, he said. He feels the expectations and the tensions on the creek and in the shrimping community.
Elrod has enough money to close on the Wando property but improving it will cost a lot more. He is now doing due diligence, bringing in structural engineers to size up the place, its needs and prospects.
Multi-use or redevelopment isn't on the table, for now. He is pulling together a network of people in key positions he knows from living and working here all his life.
"Never leaving this town and caring for where we are, we have this great pool of resources we can tap into," he said. If he can connect the right people and create enough buzz, he thinks the dock can become a community sustained operation of some sort.
"If everybody puts in their two cents and their ideas, I think they could have the whole thing for shrimping," he said.
That's what he wants to see happen.