Myrtle Beach City Council contenders squared off on a host of tough issues during a candidate forum detailing spending priorities, infrastructure needs, downtown redevelopment and homelessness.
Running for three open seats in the Nov. 5 election are the three incumbent council members; Mike Chestnut, Mary Jeffcoat and Phil Render.
The four challengers are former Councilman Wayne Gray, John Krajc, Ed Carey and Charles Gasque.
Chestnut, whose restaurant Big Mike’s Soul Food was damaged in a recent fire, was unable to attend. Render also did not attend the forum, hosted by Myrtle Beach Republican Women.
The candidates were all in agreement on the closure of the Downtown Redevelopment Group.
“I think the efforts and purpose of that organization have expired,” Gray said. “You had an unelected body making recommendations and decisions for the city in terms of development downtown, and quite frankly, they had no authority.”
The candidates also agreed the city should look at selling the Sheraton Hotel, with Carey suggesting they advertise it on the international market, but some candidates differed on the future of the convention center.
Gray said the city should consider privatizing the operation, while Jeffcoat insisted the purpose was not to profit from the convention center, but to boost the local economy.
“What they do is bring large groups into town and it generates hundreds of thousands of tax dollars every year bringing in tourists,” Jeffcoat said.
Candidates were only given one minute to answer several prepared questions as well as some from the audience.
When asked about infrastructure, safety, homelessness, and tourism development fees, some candidates focused on just one issue.
Gray tackled the tourism fees, which he helped craft in 2009 to raise money for tourism marketing and to also subsidize property taxes for what he called “the largest municipal property tax credit in the state’s history.”
Gray also was on the council in 2017 when accommodation taxes were reworked to pay for major investments in public safety, including the retention and recruitment of police officers.
Now Gray says he wants to be part of an effort to rework the tourism development fee law to allow for priority spending needs.
Gray also committed to working with county officials to settle the disputed hospitality fee structure to ensure the full one-and-a-half percent could be collected.
Carey addressed the issue of downtown and beach-end parking, where parking meters operate from March through October charging non-residents $2 an hour.
“Of course the residents like the parking situation, it’s free for the residents,” Carey said. “But if we’re spending millions of dollars advertising for people to come here and then we’ve got a toll booth at the door, we’ve got to look at that situation.”
“We’ve got a lot of friendly residents who park in the city limits that are part of our county and part of our economy, and we’re treating them just like any other tourist,” Carey said.
Krajc addressed infrastructure, particularly the state of the city’s sidewalks, or lack thereof, and the importance of walkability for the economy to thrive in downtown Myrtle Beach.
Additionally, there are no proper sidewalks on the southern part of Kings Highway, Krajc said. Residents in low income communities have to walk in the street, under minimal street lighting, because there are no sidewalks.
Jeffcoat chose the homeless issue to address, and said she has spent two decades trying to help those in need.
Instead of operating five shelters, the city combined all of the efforts into one. Now what the city needs is a day center to cut down on arrests, Jeffcoat said.
“I have a real heart for the homeless, because some many of our veterans are homeless,” Jeffcoat said.
Jeffcoat added that 80% of the city’s homeless population have either a mental health or addiction problem “and a good many of them are veterans.”
Gasgue disagreed, and said most of the homeless are prostitutes and drug dealers, which prompted criticism from the audience.
A veteran in the audience said Stand Down events for homeless veterans in the Grand Strand area are held regularly, and served 240 homeless vets at their last event.
“Saying they are all prostitutes and dope heads is strongly offensive, because we dehumanize these people,” Krajc intervened.
“We need to rehumanize them. They are still part of our community and they are still humans, and we need to be kind to people and treat them that way,” Krajc said.
Krajc says he has knocked on hundreds of doors campaigning, and the message he hears from voters is they want a strong economy, downtown redevelopment, managed growth and public safety.
“That goes hand-in-hand with the homeless issue,” Krajc said.