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The federal government has shut down one public housing project, which is already reducing voter rolls, and the threat of closing another 40 units of public housing in six months could reduce the township below the 50 voter registrations that give it a right to independent local government. If that happens, it reverts to unincorporated county territory, ripe for annexation by North Myrtle Beach, which surrounds Atlantic Beach, separating it from Myrtle Beach.

Already Myrtle Beach, a political powerhouse by comparison, has made overtures to quell the Memorial Day rally. The city has offered Atlantic Beach help with an ongoing planning and economic development plan in exchange for a crackdown on Bikefest.

“Atlantic Beach officials would tell you that they make money during their bike rally. They get $30,000 to $50,000 of revenue from the event. They have a one-week-a-year economy,” Myrtle Beach’s Kruea says. “The city wanted money to help create a plan for growth and economic development. With that in mind, we would be willing to loan them a planner or two to finish their plan and apply for some grants down the road. I think we were thinking along the lines of in-kind assistance more than cash assistance.”

Some rally enthusiasts speculate that by May 2009 Atlantic Beach will have been absorbed into North Myrtle Beach, although that city’s public information officer says no such plans are in place.

“At this point there is not anything to talk about. We’ll see what happens with Atlantic Beach. If that does happen, I’m sure there would be a conversation about how we could help them,” PIO Nicole Aiello says.

The threat might loom larger if state Rep. Tracy Edge succeeds in passing a bill he’s writing that would subject unincorporated areas and tiny municipalities to financial tests. With Atlantic Beach’s continued financial struggles, the bills would create a new avenue of assault on its township status. (Edge has also said he plans to introduce a statewide helmet law.)

Some people describe the city of Myrtle Beach as a grain of sand on the 60-mile Grand Strand that hosts the rallies every May. But this year, it’s the mouse that roared. It launched a domino effect of new rally-curbing ordinances all over Horry County (the “H” is silent). The new rules are creating confusion that threatens to upset the rally world. And that is just fine with Myrtle Beach officials.

‘Bikers Don’t Vote’
"Myrtle Beach is not Daytona, and we don't want to be Daytona," Myrtle Beach Mayor John Rhodes said in his annual address to residents.

Age plays a huge part in politics here. Most of Myrtle Beach’s full-time residents qualify for the early bird specials at Denny’s.

“Retirees are driving all of it. The only people that vote in that town are retirees,” Ankin says. “Everyone else that works in that town doesn’t live in that town. We have condos we stay in when we go to that town, but our residency is somewhere else.”

Myrtle Beach is a college town. A tourist town. A vacation playground. Its sprawling beaches and Old South hospitality have made it a Mecca for visitors. Add that Horry County is home to 104 golf courses – some world-class tournament venues – and you start to get the idea: that ain’t Superfly in the plaid pants and tasseled tam.

“Bikers don’t vote,” Martin says. “I think it is about people getting re-elected.

“This has nothing to do with bike week, it has nothing to do with revenue coming in. This has to do with all these people coming down here to retire,” he says. “What they expect is a quiet requirement. Myrtle Beach has been known for bike week for years. It’s been known for spring break. The people who came down to settle here who don’t want to hear the bikes, they are the people who are voting in the City Council and [who are] County Council members.”

Copeland adds that Myrtle Beach’s City Council meets during business hours, which makes it hard for business people to attend meetings.

“They have their meetings during the day when nobody can come but the retirees and the senior citizens,” he says.

Putting the Rev in Revenue
The flagging national economy also complicates matters. Local governments are scrambling to bring in cash, and some people say the rallies have been targets, whether with fine-generating traffic citations or increased vendor fees.

“The City of Myrtle Beach and law enforcement for Myrtle Beach Bike Week 2009 [are] going to work as hard as they can to give out as many tickets as they can — for the revenue,” Copeland says. Most rally visitors will just pay a $100 ticket rather than come back to fight it, he notes.

For all the brouhaha over changes to Myrtle Beach laws, much of the rally activity will remain intact. Few rally events were held inside the city limits before, primarily at the convention center. The new rally- and motorcycle-related ordinances have resulted in about 100 citations so far, according to Myrtle Beach Police Capt. David Knipes. About 60 of those were issued at a Freedom Rally held Feb. 28 to challenge the laws. The city is still working out the adjudication process, so no case has been heard yet. Rally proponents worry more about bad publicity driving off visitors than about the laws themselves.

“The city’s main thing has been a PR campaign more than their ordinances. It’s the publicity of their ordinances,” Shank says. “They are a fraction of what goes on. The problem is that when people come to this area, it’s all been referred to as Myrtle Beach. They don’t know the difference between Myrtle Beach and North Myrtle Beach. If people go to Surfside beach, nobody knows where that is. They think it is all one and the same.” To some extent, it seems to be working.

“Our bookings are steady, but I’d say that if we had not had the bad publicity about the city of Myrtle Beach we would be double that by now,” says Candace Howell, GM of the Myrtle Beach Eaglerider store. The hospitality industry is suffering, too.

As of April 16, vacation home rental reservations in Horry County for the week from Saturday, May 9, to Friday night, May 15, were about 48.4 percent of available units. At the same time last year, reservations were at 71.8 percent occupancy, according to Dr. Taylor Damonte, principle investigator on the Tourism Economy Study and primary author on weekly analysis of tourism business performance in the Myrtle Beach area. He acknowledges that this data is only for vacation home rentals, but says it is an indicator of all lodgings in the area for the rally dates.

(See related story on how the wildfires are further affecting tourism in the area.)

“Every tourism destination tries to maximize positive and minimize negative impacts. If that’s the goal, it will take some time. It won’t happen overnight,” he says. “There will be some loss of business revenue and jobs.”

For those who blame the weak economy, he notes, a six-week rolling average he maintains showed bookings in the same category down 3.5 percent for the six weeks ending April 16.

“The city of Myrtle Beach hotels will not start complaining until after it is over,” Keats says. “When they find out that whatever there is in Garden City and Murrell’s Inlet and everywhere else is full to capacity, then they will say something. They did not want to be politically active.”

That’s not entirely true. A group of area business owners has formed a group called BOOST (Business Owners Organized to Save Tourism). The group, which did not respond by Dealernews press time, on April 11 filed the fourth lawsuit against the city, challenging the new laws. Business owners have filed two lawsuits in federal court and two in state court. So far judges have refused to strike down the laws before a full hearing.

BOOST has taken extra steps to keep the rally going. The group hired an airplane to fly over Daytona Beach Bike Week with a banner promoting Harley Week in Myrtle Beach, and plans a billboard guiding riders to biker-friendly locations. The organization has threatened to field a candidate in the next council election to unseat Mayor Rhodes.

See Part 3 for end of the artcle

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