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Murrells Inlet: Civic group wants to defuse fireworks rift

By Jason Lesley
Coastal Observer

Board members of Murrells Inlet 2020 voted to take the Rodney King approach with Marsh Walk restaurateurs who have been staging weekly fireworks shows this summer.

“Can’t we all just get along?” King famously asked after recovering from a beating at the hands of Los Angeles police officers.

The inlet group met this week to discuss the way forward after being prodded by members of the community opposed to the debris and pollution caused by the “Monday Night Lights” fireworks shows sponsored by the seven restaurants along the Marsh Walk.

“Last year’s tactics of pitchforks and flame throwers, going over there and raising Cain didn’t work,” said Sean Bond, the Murrells Inlet 2020 chairman. “It was too brash. It was too much. There were no manners on our side the way that happened. It was not elegant the way we tried to work with them.”

He said board members were relieved after originally being told there would not be a second season of summer fireworks. Bond said he thought that would open the door to rekindle the relationship between the restaurant owners and Murrells Inlet 2020. A short time later, the fireworks shows were back on the schedule. “We felt blind-sided,” Bond said. “Whether they were mad at somebody here or doing it for spite or they wanted to do it for greed, whatever the reason was, they did it.”

After nearly three hours of discussion Monday, board members were able to agree on three points of action:

• Initiate discussions with the Marsh Walk restaurant owners to discuss fireworks after the shows end this month.

• Authorize executive director Renee Williamson to begin a media campaign to educate the public about the effects of fireworks pollution.

• Have members of the program committee work with community activist Gary Weinreich to develop a reasonable plan for minimizing fireworks debris.

Board members were divided into one faction wanting to pursue any means necessary to stop the fireworks and another that wanted to educate the public about the potential harm and hope they will end.

Williamson, who replaced Sue Sledz as executive director Aug. 1, said the board was at a fork in the road. “You’ve been there for a little while,” she said. “It’s time to take a path.”

She advised the board to use its new economic impact study and watershed plan to make everyone aware of the value and the vulnerability of the inlet. “We’ve got an opportunity by spring to implement a business friendly inlet program for business, homeowners and tourists,” she said. “We need to communicate and educate our community. There are lots of things going on that people don’t understand, from pool chlorine being dumped into the inlet to motor oil spilled in driveways and yards. The way that I believe Murrells Inlet 2020 can follow its mission incorporates all these different things in a positive way. If you can go in that direction, you can get the respect you deserve.”

Board member Denise Shelley said Marsh Walk restaurant owners have “a really bad taste in their mouths for this whole organization” and put on the fireworks show this summer for spite. “They hate this organization right now,” she said. Secretary Linda Connell agreed, saying that she had heard the restaurant owners felt Murrells Inlet 2020 backed them into a corner and they scheduled the fireworks to prove they could not be bullied. Bond said he had heard the same thing.

The meeting began with each board member expressing their thoughts about fireworks over the inlet. None thought they were a good idea and said educating the public about the effects — a 10-minute show produces almost 40 pounds of residue — was a starting point.

“It’s good news that we all agree that there’s something better that can be going on out there, and it doesn’t have to be fireworks,” Bond said. “When it comes to advocacy, this is not an advocacy group. Yes, we can advocate for our mission, but why these fireworks and where do we stop?”

Bond said Murrells Inlet didn’t need gimmicks to get tourists. “That’s a Broadway at the Beach thing,” he said. “Keep it up there. You’re already coming here because the place is beautiful. It’s going to take more than this organization to advocate. That’s not what this group is. This group has a balance. Let others fight. We need to foster the relationship that once existed. There’s a high road. Somebody’s got to get on it. We’ve got to have some form of diplomacy to get it done.”

Vice-chairman Sandra Bundy made a motion to meet with elected officials, regulatory agencies and community groups to discuss solutions to limit fireworks in the estuary and enforce existing laws. “I don’t like it,” Bond said. “Too much lobbying.” He suggested removing the words enforcing laws and contacting officials. Shelley said the motion made it sound like Murrells Inlet 2020 was driving the issue. “Education is the main thing we are trying,” she said, “not go to Ray Cleary and everybody else right now.”

“So basically,” Bundy said, “we are not going to take a leadership position in trying to protect the estuary. Is that what this amounts to?”

Bond said he was having a problem defining leadership.

Whitney Hills, an auxiliary board member and former chairman, said the group could be risking its non-profit charter if it were perceived to be lobbying. “We have a 100 percent right to advocate for our mission,” Bundy said. “I don’t think we should be afraid of that.”

Board member Gary O’Laughlin suggested approaching the Marsh Walk restaurant owners about next summer and, at least, offering to help with a robust cleanup after every show. “If they go about it again,” he said, “let’s at least put our face in there and say let’s talk about it. Let’s start planning for next year.”

O’Laughlin said Murrells Inlet 2020 has some clout. “There’s credibility,” he said. Bond said the group has lost credibility, and Williamson agreed because it has become so negative. “Put a positive spin on it,” she suggested. “Be positive. Get the program out there. Cheer it.”

Hills said the board had an obligation to take action Monday. She felt some of the restaurant owners would be willing to talk, and that would be a starting point.

“I’ve had people in this community say, ‘I don’t care if we have fireworks on the Fourth of July’ because of what’s going on,” Bundy said. “It’s about fireworks, not about whose doing it. We need to come up with some plan, not sit back and never do anything. Are we going to go along to get along or focus on our mission?”

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