Opportunity Zones & Community Development in Coastal South Carolina
Nationally-renowned for the tourist community of Myrtle Beach, Horry County is the center of South Carolina’s “Grand Strand” – a 60-mile stretch of beach that attracts nearly 20 million visitors annually. The County and its municipalities have become a popular retirement destination, making it the nation’s second fastest growing metropolitan area according to the US Census. Driven by an influx of retirees, primarily from the Northeast and Midwest, approximately 12,000 people are relocating to Horry County and its municipalities each year.
This trend has provided the area with an economic base in the tourism, health care, construction, and higher education sectors. Rapid growth, however, masks the challenges of urban decline, which has resulted in disinvestment within the County’s two central cities (Myrtle Beach and Conway). The lingering effects of the 2008 real estate crash and the economic restructuring of the tobacco industry in the late 1990s continue to diminish the area’s economic vibrancy. The region’s divergence crops up throughout the County’s census tracts, which have experienced rapid growth at the same time as they struggle with high rates of poverty, underemployment, and disinvestment.
Opportunity Zones can change this dynamic
When South Carolina Governor Henry McMaster announced a competitive process to select South Carolina’s Opportunity Zones, a team of strategic partners was assembled to submit a regional application for thirteen Opportunity Zones that would reflect the diversity of potential investments through various market sectors.
Since 2008, Horry County, the City of Myrtle Beach, and the City of Conway have jointly administered the area’s community development programs. This partnership originally emerged to address the needs of low-to-moderate income communities and was expanded to develop the application for the statewide OZ competition. Myrtle Beach Regional Economic Development Corporation and the Myrtle Beach Area Chamber of Commerce also joined the effort to add the private sector’s voice to the team.
According to the South Carolina Department of Commerce, the joint application from the Grand Strand was one of the few in the state that was submitted as a region. In all, six Opportunity Zones were designated in Horry County – two in the City of Myrtle Beach, two in the City of Conway, and two in rural communities – Aynor and Loris.
Myrtle Beach is the center of the South Carolina tourism industry with popular beaches, a boardwalk, and numerous attractions. The downtown core of Myrtle Beach, however, has suffered from underinvestment. Although the area is showing signs of rebirth with new development, poverty rates remain above 28% and numerous properties in close proximity to tourist areas are in desperate need of new investment. The two Opportunity Zones in downtown Myrtle Beach are uniquely positioned to take advantage of this tax incentive Moreover, the City of Myrtle Beach and its Downtown Revitalization Corporation have acquired almost all of the properties in the “Superblock”, a core of properties that make up the heart of Myrtle Beach’s downtown located a few blocks from the ocean In addition to acquisition of key redevelopment parcels, the City of Myrtle Beach has established a comprehensive portfolio of incentives for qualifying projects.
Conway, founded in 1732 and the county seat of Horry County, is nestled on the banks of the Waccamaw River. It includes a preserved historic downtown, core commercial zone and riverfront district all poised for redevelopment. By virtue of its location along the Waccamaw River and numerous waterfront properties available for investment, the City is experiencing unprecedented growth. Moreover, South Carolina’s public power utility, Santee Cooper, recently decommissioned a coal-fired power plant along the banks of the Waccamaw just outside of downtown Conway, and on the primary gateway to Myrtle Beach, presenting an opportunity to repurpose this industrial site. The Opportunity Zones in Conway have a relatively high poverty rate of 21% and 28%, respectively. The City of Conway also has a wide-ranging portfolio pf incentives to offer qualifying projects.
Aynor and Loris:
Aynor and Loris are two historic agricultural communities in western Horry County. Both were dependent on tobacco, an industry that collapsed in the 1990’s. Poverty rates are approximately 23% in both communities. Both Aynor and Loris are home to the County’s two most development-ready industrial parks (Cool Springs Business Park and the Loris Commerce Center). The industrial sites tap into major infrastructure investments including the future I-73 corridor and the RJ Corman Rail line. In 2016, the County received a TIGER grant, combining federal, state and private investment to rehabilitate and reopen the line for freight rail services.
The Path Forward
With the designation of the six census tracts in place, the partnership was formalized as the Grand Strand Opportunity Zones. The partners see this program as a catalyst at the intersection of community and economic development. Each of the tracts presents unique options for investors, from hospitality projects in Myrtle Beach to waterfront development in Conway to industrial development in Aynor and Loris. The shared vision of this partnership is to bring together outside investors and the local development community for the benefit of all. The partnership has identified the following near-term goals:
- Establish the partnership as a nationally recognized and engaged community poised for investment.
- Convene the stakeholders to promote private investment within the zones.
- Promote and host educational opportunities for the financial and development stakeholders
- Develop a website that highlights each Opportunity Zone’s unique characteristics www.grandstrandopportunityzones.com.
Though Opportunity Zones still have several unknowns, they offer the potential to unleash significant investment for communities across the country. Through the partnership formed in the Grand Strand, all three local governments hope that early steps to educate and market the area’s Opportunity Zones will lead to new investment that diversifies the local economy, increases employment, and ultimately reduces persistently high poverty rates in targeted and rural areas in the region.