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Murrells Inlet: Marsh Walk businesses get boost from overlay zone

By Jackie R. Broach
Coastal Observer

Murrells Inlet business owners want to see more vendors allowed along the Marsh Walk, and Georgetown County planning staff is working on a way to make it happen.

A proposed overlay zone would increase the number of vendors each business along the Marsh Walk can have on the waterfront side of their property. County laws currently limit vendors to one per lot, which inlet business owners say has a negative economic impact.

Vendors would still be prohibited from setting up on the Marsh Walk.

“We are a tourist-based economy and the Marsh Walk has been hugely successful at attracting tourists,” said David Owens, owner of Capt. Dave’s Dock Side and Creek Ratz restaurants. “It’s probably one of the best investments that has been pulled off in Georgetown County.”

But allowing more vendors to set up around the Marsh Walk would make it an even bigger attraction, he added.

“One thing we’ve heard over and over through the years is ‘How about some shopping?’ ” Owens said.

The wooden, waterfront walkway runs in front of a row of restaurants and bars, but there are no merchants. With no space for new buildings to go up, vendors seem like a perfect solution.

Visitors could have dinner or drinks, then stroll down the Marsh Walk and browse for handwoven sweetgrass baskets, local art and other items.

“It’s entertainment for people and it’s another place for them to spend money,” Owens said. “We’ve had vendors in the past and the county always gives us a hard time, so I said, ‘guys, how about help us out?’ ”

Boyd Johnson, the county planning director, said it seemed like a reasonable request to him.

“From a county staff perspective, we assume economic development is part of the reason the Marsh Walk exists. It wasn’t just built so people can enjoy the beauty of the waterfront. That does create a justification for an overlay zone,” Johnson said.

Planning staff is still working out the details of how many vendors would be allowed on each lot in the overlay zone, and that’s likely to be the biggest challenge.

“We want to ensure it doesn’t get out of hand as far as being overcrowded and unsightly,” Johnson said. “It’s kind of a balancing act between something classy and a carnival type atmosphere, which we don’t want.”

Owens said he doesn’t think overcrowding will be a big issue. Business owners recognize that “we need to keep it in good taste, and if you look at our track record along the Marsh Walk, we’ve done well in policing ourselves, keeping it clean and keeping a certain image,” he said.“I think we’ll continue to do that. We’re very proud of what we’ve done here.”

Bill Chandler, president of Preserve Murrells Inlet, doesn’t have as much faith in the honor system. Without proper controls, “there will be those who abuse it, and then somebody next door will go a step farther,” he said.

“They’ll be stacking vendors side by side.”

Preserve Murrells Inlet doesn’t oppose the overlay zone, but “practical limits” are a necessity.

“We don’t want to make it hard on anybody,” Chandler said. “The Marsh Walk has done a lot of good for Murrells Inlet. We just need something the residents and businesses can live with.”

Johnson said most of the enforcement his department has to do at the Marsh Walk involves people who set up on the walk instead of along its side.

“We’ve had to run several off over the years, but I don’t think that has anything to do with the business people,” he said. Vendors “just show up with a chair and start selling stuff, which is OK to do, but the ordinance is pretty clear that you’re not supposed to be on the Marsh Walk itself.”

But rules will definitely be put in place to limit the number of vendors.

Planners also still need to make decisions about whether they will recommend requirements that vendors take down their booths overnight and if each will be allowed a small sign, perhaps 12-by-12 inches.

He said he expects it will be recommended that vendors have to break down booths at night.

A public hearing on the overlay zone will be held at the Planning Commission meeting at 5:30 p.m. on May 19 in County Council chambers.

“We want to get it done in time for the businesses to take advantage of the spring and summer,” Johnson said.

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