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Charleston charms, but closer

By Jackie R. Broach
Coastal Observer

With its Southern charm and rich heritage, Georgetown is often referred to as “a mini Charleston.”

Downtown business owners want to see the city better capitalize on that. They want the word out that the more well-known city to the south is not the only place to go to enjoy art and history.

“Charleston seems to be this magical world,” said Geraldine Jayroe, owner of Swamp Fox Tours and Bienvenue Home Accents on Front Street. “People think Charleston is it, but the only thing they have that we don’t are horse and carriage rides, which we don’t need. The town is just too small.”

While visitors can’t enjoy a horse-drawn carriage ride, downtown merchants boast that people can enjoy great restaurants, charming stores and shops, museums, art galleries, tours and boat trips — many of the things that attract visitors to Charleston, but on a smaller scale with less traffic.

“We’ve got it all,” said Jeanette Ard, owner of Colonial-Floral Fascinations. Most cities have history, industry or natural resources. You don’t often see a place with all three, but that’s what you’ll find here.”

Located on Winyah Bay, where the Pee Dee, Waccamaw and Sampit rivers come together, Georgetown is the second largest seaport in South Carolina. It’s also the third oldest city in the state, following Charleston and Beaufort.

Bryan Humphries, a tour guide with Swamp Fox Tours, said people are often surprised at how much history there is in Georgetown.

“I know I was surprised the first time I blew through,” he said. “It didn’t look like there would be anything here. I saw the steel mill and abandoned shops.”

That didn’t leave him with high expectations, he said. But his impression changed when he started researching the area’s history after he retired to the Pawleys Island area. In his second year as a tour guide, he said he loves seeing the startled looks on people’s faces when he shares what he learned.

“Quite frankly, even locals born and raised in Georgetown are surprised at the end of the tour by how much history there is,” he said.

Georgetown’s historic district is approximately five blocks by eight blocks. But in that small area, Humphries said there are 63 historic spots, 30 homes built in the 1700s, 17 homes built in the 1800s prior to the Civil War and 129 homes built after the Civil War.

“That adds up to a lot of history,” he said.

A good bit of the area’s history can be seen in three places, the Rice Museum and the Kaminski House on Front Street, and the Georgetown County Museum on Prince Street.

“We have 300 years of history here that came from members of the community — their closets, attics and collections,” said Jill Santopietro, director of the Georgetown County Museum. “It’s a very personal collection and everyone who comes through the doors seems to find something to connect with, because there’s so much here.”

It has collections related to the history of the area’s industry, sport fishing, hunting and plantation life, among other things.

As for the arts, Ed Kimbrough said there’s plenty of that to be had in Georgetown, and more is coming.

Kimbrough is chairman of the fund-raising steering committee for the Winyah Auditorium, which is being turned into a performing arts center. Plans are to have touring productions, plays, live music and other arts. That effort started about six years ago and fund-raisers are $600,000 away from being able to open the $1.2 million center.

“We hope it will bring the arts to a greater number of our citizens,” he said of the center. “We also hope it brings people into Georgetown, as well as other parts of the county.

The Winyah Fitness Center and Studio of Dance on Front Street is expanding, adding new studio spaces and classes, including ballroom dancing in October. One of their former students, Michael Williams, is now dancing on Broadway.

“There’s just so much going on, said Steele Wilson Bremner, who owns the businesses with her husband, Alan. “I think there is incredible talent here. We have absolutely incredible artists and musicians.”

She said she believes the arts culture of Charleston is spilling into Georgetown, or perhaps it’s the other way around. Either way it’s good for the town and the county.

“What better area could you ask for, with the river and the ocean and the Lowcountry history, for the arts. We’re just meant to be an arts community. We’ve got all the elements that possibly could bring forth artistic growth,” Bremner said.

“The arts are becoming more of a focal point for Georgetown,” Kimbrough said. He believes that’s largely because of people moving in “from cities where the arts are important, where they’re thriving.”

He also believes the Strand Theater aided the arts movement.

“It whetted a number of people’s appetites and now we’re moving on to another phase,” Kimbrough said.

The Swamp Fox Players put on four productions a year at the Strand. The latest, “Della’s Diner,” opens Friday and runs through Aug. 22. As usual, tickets are selling fast, said theater manager Foy Ford.

Up against theater groups in larger cities, including Charleston, “I think we compare favorably,” Ford said. “I’ve had several people say they go to lots of different places — Myrtle Beach, Charleston, Florence, Sumter —and we’re just as good. I really do believe we have great quality in our theater and lots of great local talent we’re able to pull from.”

Bremner said she’d like to see more cultural activities in the area to draw visitors and locals to Downtown Georgetown.

“Music should be on the streets,” she said. “Art in the park should be going on once a month.”

Ard agrees. “We should be encouraging all the recital groups to perform downtown,” she said.

Beth Killen, co-owner of Miss Lizzies, said she’d like to see film festivals, movies on the green and more juried art shows.

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