City tackles ‘chronic problem’ motels to clean up downtown
Lizabeth Litrell took a long drag on her cigarette as she sat on a stoop outside of the motel room where she’s staying. Several people walked in and out of The Oasis, enjoying the sunny afternoon.
Litrell has lived at the Myrtle Beach motel for three months with her three teenage children and 2year-old grandson. Her room has two beds and a small kitchen.
Her stoop faces York Street and the Fountainbleau Inn, motels tucked between towering high-rise hotels. Mopeds line the little road leading to the heart of the motel, where towels are tossed over the railings.
During September, the motel had three public safety calls, online records show.
Police and fire officials are common sights at several of the small motels lining Ocean Boulevard in downtown Myrtle Beach, responding to calls involving prostitution, narcotics and disorderly conduct, according to police reports.
“Here in Myrtle Beach, it’s drug infested, there’s a lot of prostitutes around here,” Litrell said. “It’s not the same — like it used to be.”
Calls for service are not reasons to put motels and businesses on the nuisance list, according to a city ordinance. But that soon could change.
City manager John Pedersen plans to propose changes to the nuisance ordinance in order to help with “the chronic problem areas that we have,” making calls for service a reason a business can be added to the list.
Buildings currently are considered a nuisance when flagged for unlawful sexual activity and drugs.
“It hurts my classmates to see what has happened to Myrtle Beach, when our daddies were the one’s who built it,” said Anita Sunday, corporate manager at The Aquarius motel. “They’re the ones that had the dream of what Myrtle Beach could be.”
On Sept. 27, police responded to The Oasis for an assault. When officers arrived at the York Street motel, they spoke with the victim who had visible injuries to the left side of his face and eye, according to a police report.
Officials said the victim was grabbed by his hair, slammed to the ground and repeatedly punched.
Officers were not able to locate the attacker, the report states, but The Oasis’ clerk said it was a resident at the motel.
Compared to larger hotels like the Holiday Inn at the Pavilion, Bay View Resort and Hotel Blue, some of the smaller motels have higher calls for service every month.
Last month, the three hotels had between two and three calls for service, online records show, while motels like Coral Sands and Sea Banks Motor Inn had up to 15.
During September, the Coral Sands motel on 3rd Ave. North and Ocean Boulevard had 11 public safety calls.
Luke Wolf, Coral Sands general manager, said the motel has security staff and video surveillance to help combat crime. He declined to answer additional questions.
Front desk staff said owners of Coral Sands also run the Sea Gypsy Inn across the street. According to Orbitz, room rates are $29 per night at both the Sea Gypsy Inn and Coral Sands.
At Sea Banks Motor Inn, 2200 S. Ocean Blvd., police responded to five calls for service in September, including those for a fugitive, trespassing, forgery and a larceny.
In August, the motel had 15 calls for service. Of those calls, eight were drugs and narcotics violations, online records show. According to Orbitz, rooms are $43 per night.
Management declined an interview with The Sun News.
The Aquarius Motel, which sits a block behind the SkyWheel and the bustle of Ocean Boulevard, is prone to larcenies and burglaries, said Sunday, the corporate manager.
In September, officials responded to
four calls for service at the motel — two drug violations, one overdose and one for a stolen vehicle. In August, officials responded to a drug violation, missing persons report and reported burglary.
But police officers are a welcomed sight at the motel, Sunday said. Sunday makes a point to kick people out if officials are called to their room for any reason, she said.
“It’s not easy,” Sunday said. “It’s very expensive, and the area that we are in is very difficult because of all the homeless and prostitutes and drug dealers.”
WHAT CAN THE CITY DO?
For police, responding to calls involving prostitution, narcotics, disorderly conduct, trespassing and fighting are familiar duties, Lt. Brian Murphy with the Myrtle Beach Police Department said.
According to law, these are examples of acts that can land businesses on the nuisance list.
In nuisance cases, Murphy said, police, fire, code enforcement and lawyers are involved. If a property is identified as a possible nuisance, they meet with city representatives.
“We work very hard with the owner at this stage to encourage the owner to voluntarily bring the property into compliance with the ordinances,” Murphy said in an email. “Unfortunately, sometimes these efforts fail, and an abatement letter must be issued.”
If an owner still does not clean up their property, the city will take legal action, but it’s a last resort, he said.
These meetings take place about once or twice a quarter, he said, but would not cite any specific examples of officers working with local businesses.
“If you think about it, if we respond to a narcotics overdose — you may have between police and fire — you may tie up six or seven different units there and up to 12 people depending on the severity of the thing,” Pedersen said. “That takes those people off the street.”
While it is part of the job to respond to those calls, Pedersen said, the problem comes in when the calls become chronic.
“If you are, as an owner, not taking the management steps that you need to … then we’re just sending those resources to the same location every time,” Pedersen said. “And the question is, is that fair to the rest of the city?”
‘I JUST DON’T DEAL WITH YOU’
For Terri Hucks, renting to people without jobs or a person who looks “like a druggie” is not an option.
The Darlington Inn and Cottages owner, 203 N. Ocean Blvd., said he has turned away people for smelling like alcohol.
“It’s very simple,” Hucks said. “I’m a simple person. I’ll tell it like it is. If I don’t like the way you look and the way you act, or you smell like you’re drunk, nah. I just don’t deal with you.”
At the Aquarius, which provides weekly and nightly rentals, tenants are kicked out for suspected drug use.
Sunday said she does not allow any kind of door decorations that will set one room apart from another, and any foot traffic after will 10 p.m. raises suspicions from staff.
According to Sunday, decorations like wreaths and ribbons are used to make a room stand out for people looking to buy drugs.
If police are called to a room, the person is thrown out the next day.
Sunday said the motel will go as long as two or three months without throwing a tenant out. But sometimes, they’ll throw out two or more people a week.
“We have never been on the nuisance list of Myrtle Beach,” Sunday said. “They like the way we work at patrolling what we have, even as hard as it is.”
Mark Kruea, city spokesman, said officials do not keep a running nuisance list.
Some motels along the boulevard rent out to long-term tenants like Litrell, who’s moved from motel to motel.
According to Hucks, the problem with some of the motels along Ocean Boulevard is a distant owner.
“If you look at all of the places, who you’re going to be talking to or whatever, I’ll guarantee you that nine out of 10 of them are not owner-operators,” Hucks said. “They buy the building, they fill it full of whoever, throw somebody on the front desk that doesn’t care about anything, and then it just heads downhill.”
When Myrtle Beach was developed, it was filled with smaller properties and mom-and-pop businesses.
“That’s changed,” Pedersen said this summer, “and now you’ve got, on the oceanfront itself, you’ve got these really tall towers and so you’re making a lot more use of the footprint of the land, which, kind of in a sense, make the transient accom- modations on the back rows less accessible.”
Having older businesses in the city means some of the original owners have died, resulting in a change in ownership.
While the business could have been left to the second and third generations, those new owners do not necessarily live in the area.
“This is not a blanket statement, but in some cases they have the property paid for, the person doesn’t live here and they get a check every week, but they don’t have that personal involvement that an actual owner-operator has,” Pedersen said.
And the way to fix it, he said, is through code enforcement.
Over the past year, the city has hired two new code enforcement officers focused on enforcing ordinances, cleaning up garbage along the streets and checking to see if buildings are up to code.
Over the past eight months, there have been 457 code violations in the downtown area, Pedersen said.
“It’s our front porch and it’s what people see when they come to town,” Myrtle Beach Mayor Brenda Bethune said this summer during an editorial board meeting with The Sun News. “We want to clean up the front porch and make it look clean and inviting.”
For the city manager, cleaning up the area between the Pavilion and Family Kingdom — an area filled with hotels and motels — will help change the feel of Myrtle Beach.
In the editorial board meeting, Pedersen said he would like to see Myrtle Beach feature a combination of retail, some attractions and full-time residential catering to a younger crowd.
WHAT’S THE ANSWER?
For Sunday, cleaning up the mom-and-pop motels is a community effort.
“If everybody doesn’t work together, this is never going to get fixed. It’s gonna stay the same,” Sunday said. “It’s gotta be a team effort. And that means the city, the police department and us.”
Sunday said the city is doing what it can by tearing down abandoned motels. In August 2016, Emerald Shores, 404 N. Ocean Blvd., was torn down. In 2017, Rainbow Court, 411 N. Ocean Blvd. was demolished. Now, two empty lots sit where former motels once stood.
Sunday said if the city continues to rid the area of these motels, the “unwanted” will leave Myrtle Beach.
“If we keep housing them, we’re never gonna get them to leave,” she said. “They’ll stay.”
The City of Myrtle Beach is working to combat crimes at mom-and-pop motels by restricting the nuisance list.