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Murrells Inlet: Changing board signals group’s changing priorities

By Jason Lesley
Coastal Observer

Last week’s changing of the guard on the Murrells Inlet 2020 board of directors was set in motion 16 years ago when the group was formed with the dual mission of promoting economic growth and protecting the inlet’s water quality.

Eventually, directors would have to choose one over the other.

When owners of the six restaurants along the Marsh Walk decided to stage a series of weekly fireworks displays to promote tourism last summer, a majority of Murrells Inlet 2020 directors objected on the grounds that the fireworks residue polluted the water. That vote exposed a rift between the economic growth and water quality factions. Al Hitchcock, an owner of Drunken Jack’s Restaurant and Inlet Affairs, and Charlie Campbell, owner of Dead Dog Salloon, were asked to leave a board meeting during fireworks discussions after new conflict of interest guidelines were established. Without the restaurateurs’ input the board voted to condemn the weekly fireworks exhibits.

Hitchcock and Campbell will leave the board when new directors take over in January. Hitchcock’s term expires, and Campbell said at the start of the year he planned to resign so he could travel more. Also resigning were David Owens, owner of Owens Liquors, who supplies inlet restaurants, and chairman Maxine Dawes, saying they needed to spend more time on their businesses.

That leaves the board and the advisory council without a representative from the big six Marsh Walk restaurants for the first time. Cyndi Moran of the Hot Fish Club will return as a member of the advisory council.

“Charlie and Al will be a tremendous loss,” Dawes said after last week’s board meeting. “We need a member of the restaurant association on 2020.”

Hitchcock said there will probably be opportunities for the restaurant operators in the next year or two to rejoin the board.

“They need a restaurateur on the board,” he said, “however they rotate it. They make those decisions. I can’t remember when they didn’t have a restaurateur on the board in some fashion: Russell Vereen, Kelly Dorman, David Owens. I’ve served several terms on it. There will be another owner interested. There’s usually a seat or two open about every year. Being the industry of the inlet, I would think they would want to have somebody from the restaurants.”

The new members of the Murrells Inlet 2020 board will be Cricket Alcorn, an employee of HTC, Gary O’Loughlin, a resident of Wachesaw East who retired after 40 years in the aerospace industry with Northrop Grumman; Jim Wilkie, a U.S. Air Force and aerospace industry retiree and winner of the organization’s Golden Oyster Award this fall; and Steve Williams, an employee of the engineering firm Earthworks. Wilkie is a former chairman of the group’s predecessor, Murrells Inlet 2007.

Wilkie, O’Loughlin and Williams have all been involved in projects to measure the effect pollution is having on water in the inlet. Wilkie was instrumental in the formation of the Murrells Inlet Water Quality Monitoring Program in 2008. O’Loughlin has served as a water monitoring volunteer since the program began in partnership with Coastal Carolina University’s Waccamaw Watershed Academy. As an analyst and hydrologist, Williams is working to develop a plan delineating sub-watersheds to understand water flows into the inlet.

Three new members were named to the board’s advisory council: Tracy Crane, Davie Goettel and Calvin Watters. They join returning members Moran, Linda Lane and Billy Nichols.

Bill Chandler, a founder of Murrells Inlet 2007, likes the incoming board’s makeup.

“I think everybody here in the inlet would be pleased with the way the board is going,” he said.

Chandler said the Murrells Inlet 2007 board was set up to tilt slightly in favor of individual property owners. “We were very sensitive to that,” he said. “When Walt Berner was on the board, we had a lot of support from Wachesaw. When board members left they just tended toward getting more from business. I don’t think it’s anything that was really planned. It just evolved.”

Chandler said the weekly fireworks displays were not in keeping with the “sleepy seafood village” image that Murrells Inlet had cultivated. “That’s what brought people in here,” he said. “If we try to make it look like Myrtle Beach, we’ve lost the character of Murrells Inlet. I don’t think it was anything consciously done to go in that direction. The business owners were looking at stuff to stimulate their businesses.

“The sensitivity of the individual property owners was not there with the business people. I’m not criticizing them at all, but the only way the 2020 board can swing the pendulum back is to get more property owners on the board. It had to happen, or we would have lost the nature of Murrells Inlet. I think what they’ve done is absolutely the right thing to do.”

Sean Bond was elected new board chairman. James Jordan will be vice chairman-treasurer, and Linda Connell, secretary.

Dawes said she recommended Bond, owner of a pirate adventure boat in the inlet, as new chairman.

Bond said it was “a difficult year” for the organization. “We need to remind ourselves that as much as the volunteers are important, we all here are volunteers and that’s the biggest thing. We get lost in thanking everybody else, but it’s important that we are sitting at this table. The thing we need to get back to is having fun. That whole concept was kind of vague this year. We need to get back to what this is about: the creek and the community and welcoming new members and new faces.”

Sue Sledz, executive director of Murrells Inlet 2020, said the group will continue to represent the entire community.

“The board of directors and advisory council has a blend of residents and business owners,” she said. “Our business owners represent the restaurant, fishing and excursion, retail, accommodations and real estate sectors. We’ll stay centered on our mission and we’ll continue to advance infrastructure improvements and promotion of the inlet, as we did with Morse Park Landing, Luther’s Garden, the bike bridge and bike lanes, Marsh Walk, and Jetty View Walk. We will also continue our focus on water quality monitoring with our long-standing volunteer program, now in its sixth year, our community clean-ups, anti-litter campaigns and the upcoming watershed plan.

“We’ll always remain supportive of the Marsh Walk and hope the restaurateurs along the Marsh Walk will continue to support Murrells Inlet 2020 as they have in the past even without a current seat on the board or advisory council.”

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