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Tourism: Lone voice at forum draws many questions

By Jackie R. Broach
Coastal Observer

Barry Steele didn’t expect to be the center of attention when he attended a community forum on tourism last week, but that’s what happened.

The new general manager of Signature Boutique Hotel on Highway 17 in Hagley, Steele was one of only two people who turned out for the forum at Georgetown City Hall. The other, a local boat captain, came in as the meeting was wrapping up.

The low attendance isn’t a sign of low interest, said Annette Fisher, president of the Georgetown County Chamber of Commerce. A lot of those who might normally have attended the forum had already spoken with Robert Cleverdon and Jim Jessamine, the consultants who led the forum. They work for Tourism Development International, a Dublin-based firm in the final phase of a tourism development study for the state that began four years ago.

They’ve since been traveling around South Carolina, trying to find out what locals want to see happen with tourism in their region.

Plans for inland regions are finished. The team is now focused on the coast, starting with Georgetown and Horry counties.

Since they arrived in the area, Fisher said she’s been taking them to meet with small groups of people throughout the county. They met with town officials and accommodations providers on Pawleys Island, and a similar group in Murrells Inlet. They also talked to folks at the county airport, Hobcaw Barony, Hopsewee Plantation and East Bay Park.

Though Cleverdon and Jessamine said they gathered plenty of information in those meetings, that didn’t stop them from quizzing Steele to find out everything they could from him, and giving the same presentation they would have if the forum had drawn a packed house.

“We want to know what the problems and challenges are, and what the opportunities are for driving tourism,” Cleverdon said. The company wants to develop a vision that will be targeted to Georgetown County and not focused only on Myrtle Beach.

With that in mind, Cleverdon wanted to know how folks in Georgetown County think Myrtle Beach affects tourism here.

“Does Myrtle Beach’s image pull down the perception for the rest of you?” he asked, pointing out it has been dubbed by some “the redneck riviera.”

Steele said a lot of his guests book rooms at Signature Boutique, because they’ve just driven through Myrtle Beach and don’t want to stay there.

“It’s just too noisy, it’s too much people, it’s too everything,” he said. “It’s just overwhelming.”

At the same time, Steele said, “I think this area could use a little livening up. There’s not a great deal of anything to attract people, other than the basic fishing and beach.”

Many of the guests who stay at the hotel are fishermen, Steele said. He’s hoping the firm’s efforts will help the hotel attract more families.

Steele also mentioned beautification along Highway 17 as a priority. He complained that the grass often goes uncut along the highway in the Hagley area.

“You drive down 17 and it just doesn’t look very attractive as a whole and the grass is this bloody high,” Steele said gesturing to a point several feet off the ground.

Cleverdon asked Steele if he thinks the lack of maintenance on the highway gives people driving through a negative image of the area.

“I’d say that’s pretty close to the mark,” he said, adding he’d like to see the area look more like Litchfield in regard to beautification.

The medians in Litchfield are cared for by a nonprofit, and the plantings and maintenance are funded through donations and accommodations tax funds. A similar group has plans to do the same for the medians between the South Causeway and Georgetown bridges.

Among the suggestions Cleverdon and Jessamine have already offered to improve tourism in Georgetown County are taking better advantage of the Waccamaw River as an attraction and capitalizing on the county’s connection to first lady Michelle Obama’s family.

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