The day after last week’s shootings in Myrtle Beach, a family showed up in Debbie Smith’s office on Ocean Isle Beach looking for a room.
The family, Smith said, had stayed in an Ocean Boulevard hotel in Myrtle Beach next to where a teenager fired seven shots into a crowd early Sunday morning. They cut their Myrtle Beach vacation days short and drove less than an hour north, across the North Carolina state line, to spend the next week in the small Brunswick County beach town.
Smith, a lifelong resident of the island – before there was even a bridge to the mainland, she said – manages rental properties and set the family up. She’s also been the Ocean Isle Beach mayor for more than a decade.
The series of six Myrtle Beach shootings in three days left no one dead, but several people were wounded and the famous coastline is now publicly struggling with an image crisis. The city council held a special meeting, the governor of South Carolina held a meeting to talk policing strategies and the community called for action – from more boots on the ground to barricades along the sidewalk to earlier curfews for those under age.
Beach trips are often well-worn affairs, the same family in the same hotel or rental on the same scrap of land by the sea. For generations, beach umbrellas are stuck into the same sands like rainbow-colored family crests. While we may live hundreds of miles away and log hours on interstates and two-lane rural shortcuts to get there, families often have their beach, a sense of ownership earned through tradition and memories.
In the days after the Myrtle Beach shootings, some vowed on social media that they were breaking their ties there, or already had before the latest violence. The beach is one of the most prominent and highly developed along the Atlantic coast and is fueled by a tourism industry in the billions of dollars.
“We recognize that if we don’t address this, there’s serious risk of reputational damage to the tourism industry and the community,” said Brad Dean, president of the Myrtle Beach Chamber of Commerce. “It’s still possible to salvage a good summer in terms of tourism. Hopefully we can use this as a turning point. Right now there’s more uncertainty, and there have been more than a few cancellations.”
It was a bad weekend for Myrtle, even for incidents that didn’t occur there. Last Saturday, an SUV of Virginia teenagers was stopped in Bladen County with marijuana and cocaine, 18 liters of liquor, several cases of beer and thousands in cash. Their stated destination: Myrtle Beach.
The suspect in the most prominent Myrtle shooting, the one broadcast on Facebook from a hotel balcony, is a 17-year-old from Charlotte. Dean says Myrtle Beach is responsible for addressing crime that occurs in its city, but notes that most of that crime is committed by people from other places.
“The citizens of Myrtle Beach do a wonderful job caring for our kids,” Dean said. “It’s other communities whose children are coming here to cause problems. … A few have decided not to respect our community and follow our laws. To them we say stay home or find somewhere else to go.”
Kristty Smith, a hair stylist in Clayton, was on a vacation with her family in Myrtle Beach on the weekend of the shootings. She said it was a fun trip, a week spent on the beach and going para-sailing and to the Broadway at the Beach restaurant and entertainment area. She said Myrtle was where she went to the beach while growing up, but that the area’s congestion is now pushing her toward North Carolina’s more quaint beaches.
“I will not go back to Myrtle,” Smith said. “There are just too many people there. It’s just gotten crazy. It’s so congested. That’s the only reason I won’t be back.”
Diego Cancel of Raleigh spent a weekend in Myrtle Beach for the first time two weeks ago. While he enjoyed it, he doesn’t foresee a return visit..
“Myrtle was fun, but it was definitely not for everyone,” Cancel said via Facebook Messenger. “It is very trashy in the sense of people not being respectful of others regardless of race or age. It’s an experience that I wouldn’t want to repeat.”
Back on Ocean Isle, Smith said she sometimes makes the drive across the state border for shopping or occasional dining in South Carolina. But she usually tries to stay out of Myrtle.
“You don’t want to hear what I think of Myrtle Beach,” Smith said.
The beaches of southern North Carolina are the strips to Myrtle’s strand, often rural and often preferring it that way. Some use the phrase “family friendly” to distinguish the atmosphere north of the state line.
“There’s a different dynamic between Myrtle and Sunset,” said Sunset Beach Mayor Robert Forrester. “We’re very much family oriented, families who have been coming for a number of years.”
Sunset Beach’s most significant controversy in recent years came last winter, when the town considered banning cabanas on the beach.
“I got 350 emails about banning cabanas,” Forrester said. “The overwhelming majority all referred to the fact that they’ve been coming to the beach for 30 years. That their grandmother came 80 years ago.”
Forrester doesn’t speak ill of Myrtle Beach, saying he visits somewhat regularly for shopping and dining. He said plenty of Sunset visitors steal away for a day in Myrtle Beach while on vacation..
“The negative activities that happened over the weekend, the vast majority of the people that come here would not be associated with,” Forrester said, saying he hears mostly of day trips to the alligator adventure shows or Broadway at the Beach. “You wouldn’t find the same kind of population that stays there as stays here.”
Smith acknowledged that Brunswick County has likely received a boost from the enormous growth of Myrtle Beach.
“I think Myrtle was primed for growth and in the right place, and Brunswick benefited from that,” Smith said. “But thank goodness we’ve kept ourselves a little quieter.”
That relationship may be most important for Calabash, which collects loads of day trippers from Myrtle Beach seeking out seafood restaurants or a day on the water. Bob Taylor runs Calabash Fishing Fleet and said 75 percent of his approximately 550 charter voyages a year are from groups from Myrtle Beach.
Taylor said he doesn’t expect the shootings to drive the crowds away from Myrtle.
“Calabash is the closest port to Myrtle Beach, so if you’re looking to go fishing or just out on a boat, you have to drive north and come to the inlet,” Taylor said. “(The shooting) was an isolated incident; I don’t foresee any real impact. In the short term, maybe, people might check out a little early. But that could happen just about anywhere. We’ve had a high influx of people this year. Out of all those people, you’ll have a handful of bad seeds here and there.”
John Hobgood runs the only grocery store on Sunset Beach, the Island Market. He said he doesn’t expect the incidents in Myrtle to have much impact on Sunset or beaches like it.
“It was tragic,” Hobgood said. “Nothing really good happens after midnight. But it’s not really going to impact the people who come here.”