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Waterfronts: To preserve traditions, communities embrace diverse uses

By Jason Lesley

South Carolina’s mill villages died. Researchers are hoping its working waterfronts won’t.

Working waterfronts, said Clemson professor Bill Norman Monday during a forum in Murrells Inlet, are part of the “authentic experience” that tourists are seeking. That includes seafood right off the boat that is served in Murrells Inlet’s restaurants.

Mill villages are far different from working waterfronts, said Joey Holleman, editor of the S.C. Sea Grant Consortium’s magazine Coastal Heritage. Residents of mill villages were given everything by their employers. They didn’t have the tools to save their neighborhood when the mills closed. “They didn’t have that passion,” Holleman said. “People on working waterfronts have always been self-supportive. There’s a whole lot more hope to save these places. They have all these go-getters, people who understand how to run a business and ask government for the right things. People love their waterfronts. About 60 years ago, you couldn’t say that. Waterfronts were dirty, nasty places. Everybody I talked to want to see these fishing villages survive. They may have different ideas of how to do it, but they are passionate about the survival.”

Murrells Inlet is one of five South Carolina working waterfronts studied by representatives from the South Carolina Sea Grant Consortium, Clemson University and the College of Charleston. They sought public input on topics like tourism, population growth and climate change. In addition to Murrells Inlet, the study included Georgetown, McClellanville, Shem Creek and Port Royal.

“There were no consistent findings in the different areas we studied, and there are no one-size-fits-all solutions,” Norman said. “All of the areas have expanded from the traditional definition of a working waterfront. These areas can possibly learn from each other to solve their problems.”

He said Murrells Inlet has an identity issue, struggling to rectify the busy restaurants along the Marsh Walk, recreational fishing, watercraft rentals and commercial fishing. Unique to the inlet are oyster beds and estuaries. “The Marsh Walk attracts different people,” Norman said. “What’s a balance that works for you?”

Holleman said Murrells Inlet reminds him of Shem Creek 20 years ago. Summer tourists put stress on Murrells Inlet because of parking and pedestrian traffic on Highway 17. Most commercial fishing docks have been pushed away from the Marsh Walk. It’s a matter of sharing space, Norman said. If Murrells Inlet has an identity issue, Georgetown is ripe for change, researchers said.

Georgetown Mayor Jack Scoville said there is a buyer ready to purchase the steel mill and the adjacent State Ports Authority property and implement the mixed-use redevelopment plan contained in a study by the Urban Land Institute. The state agency is willing to sell, but neither local nor state officials have heard from the mill owner, ArcelorMittal.

Last June, there was a conference call with the firm’s real estate division. “It was a good hour-long conversation,” Scoville said. “Since that meeting, we’ve heard nothing.”

The city has begun the process to change the industrial zoning for the mill site, but the mill could still reopen as an existing use, he said. That possibility, driven by President Donald Trump’s call to return manufacturing to the U.S., concerns city residents. “Everybody needs to be getting this message: Georgetown has had enough with pollution,” Jeepy Ford said. What the site needs is a new owner, said Tony Jordan.

The city plans a series of meetings in March to get input from residents on the Urban Land Institute plan, Administrator Paul Gardner said.

One component of the plan is a commercial fishing dock, something that ties in with the Sea Grant research about the place of traditional activities along the waterfront. While there is conflict between commercial and recreational boat traffic on Shem Creek in Mount Pleasant, that could be to Georgetown’s advantage. “Those guys sound like they may be looking for another home port,” Scoville said.

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