ESCAPE FROM MYRTLE

EditorApril 30, 2014 

Mark “Fletch” Fletcher, 38, hopes the third time’s the charm.

A graduate of Conway High School, Fletcher is spending the next couple of weeks in suburban Dallas training for a new job with Twin Peaks, a sports-themed restaurant/bar concept where he will work as a manager in West Des Moines, Iowa, representing the popular bartender’s third attempt to escape from Myrtle Beach in the last three years.

“You’ll be back in eight months,” chimes in Fletcher’s friend, Ben “Fats” Harrison, seated next to us recently at Dagwood’s Deli and Sports Bar in Surfside Beach, a few days prior to Fletcher’s latest departure.

A former manager at Myrtle Beach’s theme restaurants Hard Rock Cafe, Cheeseburger in Paradise and Planet Hollywood and also a bartender at the Crafty Rooster in Conway and Mellow Mushroom in Myrtle Beach, Fletcher, who grew up as a military brat, is accustomed to the itinerate, nomadic lifestyle.

Yet he put down roots for eight years behind the bar at Island Bar and Grill near Surfside Beach, where he also booked the venue’s entertainment and helped remodel the strip mall space, before heading off to Omaha, Neb. to chase his muse in August 2012.

“I met a cool girl and was looking for a place to move,” he said. He followed her to Omaha, a 22-hour drive from Myrtle Beach, found employment right away, but the relationship soured quickly, and in “two months, I came crawling back,” he said, resuming his old job at Island Bar. But it was never the same, and in November 2013, he left again, heading to Johnson City, Tenn. to help support a friend and rekindle a romance. That didn’t pan out, and he was back on the Grand Strand within two weeks.

Fletcher epitomizes one of those “it’s a Myrtle Beach thing, you wouldn’t understand” phenomena - people who have tried, for various reasons to leave our sandy shores, in search of something more, personally, professionally, culturally and spiritually, than our tourism hub and limited job market can offer.

Are we too busy serving others to serve ourselves?

“There is no community here,” said Fletcher, who is single, never been married, and has no kids. “Myrtle Beach...it’s a very lonely town, if you’re not already married.”

Yet many who venture out wind up right back where they started from, square one, at the beach.

“Everybody has five friends that have done the same thing,” said Harrison. “It’s some sort of bizarre subculture zeitgeist.”

Is Myrtle Beach bucking the trend established by Thomas Wolfe’s 1940 novel “You Can’t Go Home Again”? That novel’s title has become a part of the American lexicon, taking on a meaning that once you venture out from your Podunk hometown and get a taste of what the rest of the world has to offer, things can never be the same if you return.

“Most people move back for social reasons,” said Harrison. “I guess it’s the people you know.”

Or is Fletcher more akin to the novel’s nomadic protagonist, George Webber, who gets an unexpected chilly reception when he returns home after writing a book that makes frequent references to his hometown and its people?

“You can’t go back home to your family, back home to your childhood, back home to romantic love, back home to a young man’s dreams of glory and of fame, back home to exile, to escape to Europe and some foreign land, back home to lyricism, to singing just for singing’s sake, back home to aestheticism, to one’s youthful idea of ’the artist’ and the all-sufficiency of ’art’ and ’beauty’ and ’love,’ back home to the ivory tower, back home to places in the country, to the cottage in Bermude, away from all the strife and conflict of the world, back home to the father you have lost and have been looking for, back home to someone who can help you, save you, ease the burden for you, back home to the old forms and systems of things which once seemed everlasting but which are changing all the time - back home to the escapes of Time and Memory.”

- Thomas Wolfe

Is the water bluer?

But why would anyone want to leave the Grand Strand?

“That’s a good question,” said Morgan Dendy, Director of Marketing and Public Relations for the Myrtle Beach Regional Economic Development Corp.

“Ultimately, it’s a balance between quality of life and being able to provide for your family.”

We’ve got sea, sun, sand, salt, beautiful natural landscapes, Southern charm, many of the conveniences of major cities without many of the hassles - and with good times in abundance, what’s not to like?

“It really is easy living here,” said Legends in Concert drummer Tommy Tipton, who has moved away from and then moved back to the Myrtle Beach area so many times he can’t really keep track.

Still, the statistics bear it out, Horry County (just ask the school system) is classified as having a transient population - people ebb and flow like the tide, dancing about on this thing we call beach life like driftwood resting on the foam - here one minute, gone with the next swell.

“I can’t meet permanent people, here,” said Fletcher. “They’re just in and out of your life so much - you meet someone cool...and then they’re gone.”

It seems very common for local musicians to chase their rock star dreams in bigger towns known for their music scenes, such as Athens, Ga., Nashville, Tenn., Austin, Texas and Asheville, N.C., but many of them wind up back at the beach when reality sets in and that record contract becomes elusive.

Not every metro area the size of Myrtle Beach’s (the population of the Myrtle Beach-North Myrtle Beach-Conway combined statistical area is estimated at 329,449 according to Census data) can boast professional opportunities for musicians in the form of theater shows, such as Legends, The Carolina Opry and The Alabama Theatre - steady employment, with benefits.

Had Tipton, 44, not snagged the drummer’s chair at Legends in Concert three years ago, he feels certain he’d have pursued opportunities in Nashville again. But now he’s a homeowner, living with his wife and daughter in Pawleys Island.

You may not be writing the next great rock opera or headlining the Ryman Auditorium, but you can get steady work as a musician along the Grand Strand with its array of restaurants, bars, attractions, events and festivals offering gigs, Tipton says.

“A four-piece band can get $400 a night, easy,” said Tipton, who has played in a variety of local ensembles, from Dead Cut Tree to The Noise Machine.

Degrees of degrees

While one has chosen (at least for now) to make the best of life at the beach and the other chases opportunity in the Midwest (at least for now), Fletcher and Tipton have something in common - neither has a college degree, although they both gave it the ol’ college try for a little while.

And, by far, they are not alone when it comes to the local populace.

According to city-data.com, in Horry County, 81.1 percent of people 25 years old or older have high school degrees, while 18.7 percent of that same demographic holds a bachelor’s degree or higher. For Georgetown County, 75.2 percent of residents 25 or older have high school diplomas, while 20 percent of the same bracket has a bachelor’s degree or higher. Further down U.S. 17, the undoubtedly more cultured Charleston County has a similar rate of high school graduates (81.5 percent) among folks 25 and older, while a decidedly higher rate (30.7 percent) of young adults and older holding a bachelor’s degree or higher.

According to Census data, out of 394 listed communities, Pawleys Island is the second-most educated city/town in South Carolina, while Briarcliffe Acres is 9th, North Myrtle Beach is 29th, Surfside Beach came in at 43, Forestbrook (which isn’t a town or city) at 61, Murrells Inlet at 71, Little River at 78, Atlantic Beach at 82, Garden City Beach at 86 and Myrtle Beach at 88. Conway (home to our area’s largest institution of higher learning) is 90th, Red Hill clocked in at 91, Socastee at 115, Georgetown at 156, Loris at 232, Bucksport at 236 and...Aynor at 265. Rhodes Scholars we ain’t...

But this is not to say that everyone needs to have a college degree to be successful or contribute positively to the community - clearly that is not the case - or that the traditional 4-year university experience is right for everyone - clearly it is not, especially considering the huge amount of student loan debt today’s graduates are saddled with.

But do high-paying jobs and higher education automatically go hand-in-hand?

“Not necessarily,” said the EDC’s Dendy. “While some jobs do require a four-year degree, there are significant high-paying jobs in today’s economy that simply require a skill or certification. For example, a two-year degree in welding, could potentially result in a career making upwards of $30-plus an hour. In Horry County, we are fortunate enough to have community partners like Horry-Georgetown Technical College that see a need for specialized training to diversify our local workforce, so they are constantly developing new courses such as their recently announced welding, CNC (machinist) and brewery programs.”

Although gobs of people have moved to Horry County - since 1970, the population has swelled from 69,992 to 265,360 in 2010 according to the Census and the latest estimate from 2013 says there are 289,650 full-time permanent residents - jobs outside the tourism and service industry sector haven’t kept pace.

And here’s the kicker - Horry County’s dominant workforce - Accommodation and Food Services, representing 32,825 jobs, according to the S.C. Department of Employment & Workforce, is also the county’s second-lowest paying industry, with an average yearly wage of $19,760, beating out only the Arts, Entertainment and Recreation category with 5,617 workers pulling down an average yearly wage of $19,136.

Employing the second-largest number of workers in Horry County is the Retail Trade sector with 21,857 employees, faring a little better with an average yearly wage of $22,776.

If you’re not an owner, or franchisee, investor, or high-level manager in these industries, do you really have any chance at the so-called “better life”?

So maybe you’re reading this and thinking, no shit, Sherlock, we know tourism rules and we know it’s a double-edged sword that we live and die by - and this may be prevailing common knowledge on the street, yet it’s sobering to see in black and white.

But if the Myrtle Beach-area job market diversifies more beyond tourism-related jobs will more natives and longtime residents such as Fletcher, and, say, recent Coastal Carolina University graduates, stay in the area, instead of seeking jobs in other cities?

“Absolutely,” asserts Dendy. “ The Myrtle Beach EDC’s primary goal is to diversify the local economy and create more high-paying, year-around jobs. It is absolutely crucial that we work to diversify industries and create jobs that will help create a strong, sustainable economy. We have a tremendous amount of respect for the tourism industry because it has made Myrtle Beach what it is today. Our vision is to develop the Grand Strand going forward in the same way Charleston has. They certainly have excelled in tourism development, but they also have attracted high-end manufacturing, aerospace, corporate headquarters, and technology.”

Dendy, 31, a Garden City Beach resident who graduated from Socastee High in 2001 and earned a bachelor’s degree at the University of South Carolina, takes the challenge personally.

“I am an example of a young professional fortunate enough to stay and work in my home,” she said. “We’re working hard to provide those same opportunities to others. “

What’s the biggest hurdle in improving the Myrtle Beach area’s economic development?

“Our lack of an interstate is a big obstacle for us,” said Dendy. “Many manufacturing companies require direct interstate access to distribute their products throughout the country. Until we can get an interstate, we are out of the running for major manufacturing companies. Another obstacle that we often have to face is the perception that Myrtle Beach is only a tourist town and that our workforce is made up of people that can work hospitality type jobs, but not industrial jobs. The success of local manufacturers like Metglas, Wolverine Brass, Conbraco and others are our best response to those criticisms.”

Up on Interstate 80

While Myrtle Beach area boosters and economic drivers dream of Interstate 73/74 connecting Myrtle Beach to the outside world, our man-on-a-mission Fletcher, will soon be plying his trade along the I-80 corridor in Des Moines, the capital of Iowa, which was recently ranked by NBC as “the Wealthiest City in America,” and is a center for financial and insurance services.

Mention Iowa around Myrtle Beach, and it’s sure to raise some eyebrows and conjure images of corn, and the 1989 Kevin Costner flick “Field of Dreams.”

But Forbes magazine ranked Des Moines as the best city for careers and business in general.

“Beverly Hills may be rich and chic and the Upper East Side of Manhattan may be rich and exclusive,” reads that recent Today Show report,” But if you’re looking for the city where regular folk can live a rich life, try Des Moines, Iowa. The locals may not be millionaires, but the city’s cost of living is almost 10 percent below the average for the country. That means that money goes a lot further there.”

Whereas the mom-and-pop operations in Myrtle Beach have their charms, Fletcher says he missed the corporate gig, where it’s always about improving the product and staying on top of and out in front of trends. He is impressed with the company that owns Twin Peaks, a sort of Hooters of the Heartland featuring scantily clad female servers in short-shorts, tight, halter-esque flannel tops showing plenty of cleavage and bare midriffs. “The whole company is so sophisticated,” he said.

And he’s gleefully posted photos from his training sessions on social media.

Looking back on his time in Myrtle Beach, Fletcher said, “I’ve done what I can do here. To be able to teach, I need to learn more.”

But if the EDC’s vision of Myrtle Beach, flush with high-end manufacturing, aerospace, corporate headquarters, and technology - hell, maybe even a national craft beer brewery - ever comes to fruition, Fletcher would find it appealing.

“If Myrtle Beach was a little bigger and had more job opportunities, I would never leave,” said Fletcher. “I do love this town, but it’s like a two-year town, maximum.”

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