As he watched the Myrtle Beach High School girls basketball team play at the Florence Center last week, John Rhodes paid as much attention to the venue as he did the lower state title game.
“I’m like, ‘God, wouldn’t it be nice [to build a civic center] on that piece of property,’” the former Myrtle Beach mayor said. “You’d have plenty of room, plenty of parking. And that would give us a 10,000-seat facility.”
That piece of property is the former Hard Rock Park, a trio of parcels totaling 131 acres (the main tract is 125 acres) that was bought in December by a limited liability company called FTPP Bishop Parkway. Until this week, little was known about the ownership of FTPP outside of the name of the real estate attorney (Shep Guyton) who served as the registered agent for the LLC. But on Monday, Rhodes applied for an Horry County demolition permit to gut the interior of a building on the site. He listed his cell phone number in the contact information for the property owner and signed the form. When the media obtained a copy of the document, Rhodes’ involvement became public.
The former mayor admits he used an LLC to keep his connection to the land a secret. He spent four years trying to acquire the property, even courting Chinese investors for a potential $100 million cultural center there.
Until last year, he found no success.
Even just before he bought the land, the property seemed to be headed toward a different owner. Another investor group had inquired about the site and expressed interest in possible economic development incentives for businesses there.
But the other investors walked away before closing the deal, Rhodes said.
“When they dropped out, I went in and made an offer that I thought they would turn down,” he said. “They took it and it’s like, ‘OK, here we are.’”
The land sits beside George Bishop Parkway near the former Waccamaw Pottery shopping center.
In 2008, Hard Rock Park opened there with rock ’n’ roll-themed rides, including the Led Zeppelin roller coaster. But the attraction struggled to draw visitors and by September of that year the park had filed for bankruptcy.
Another company, FPI MB Entertainment LLC, bought the park out of bankruptcy for $25 million and rebranded it as Freestyle Music Park.
Freestyle stayed open for just one season before it too closed. The park has remain shuttered and the rides were dismantled and sold.
Long considered an eyesore, the sale of the property last year ignited speculation about redevelopment.
Horry County Government records indicate a $20 million mortgage on the property was satisfied on Dec. 27. The borrower had been FPI US LLC, the same company that bought the property out of bankruptcy in 2011. The lender was Ysanne Trading Limited, a company based in the country of Cyprus.
The property was then purchased on Dec. 28 by FTPP Bishop Parkway, LLC for $3,545,000, records show.
To cut down on costs, Rhodes said he opted not to use a real estate agency in the transaction. He said his attorney, Guyton, helped navigate the legal process, though Guyton is not part of the ownership.
While a civic center is one idea he has for the site, Rhodes said he’s open to other possibilities, though he dismissed the notion of constructing another amusement park.
“It’s 131 acres of land,” he said. “It’s sitting in a location in Myrtle Beach that has the easiest access there is. You come in off of 17 Bypass, come in off of Harrelson [Boulevard], come off of 31, come off of 501. You’ve got easy accessibility to that property.”
Although Rhodes is part of the company that owns the site, he remained tight-lipped about who the other investors are. He did confirm they are not Chinese. That's a change from the plan Rhodes and former Horry County Council Chairman Mark Lazarus pitched in 2016 (Rhodes lost his reelection bid in 2017 and Lazarus was defeated last year).
Back then, the two leaders pushed the idea of Chinese investors building a cultural center there. But Rhodes said the potential investors in that deal made other plans, and the trade disputes between the U.S. and China have cooled Chinese investments here.
“You just can’t get money out of China like you used to,” he said. “That’s pretty much gone.”
Rhodes also said he intends to seek additional investors once he crafts more detailed plans for the property. He said he’s already spoken with the representatives from some groups with deep pockets.
“They’re out there,” he said. “You’ve just got to find them.”
When news broke of his role in purchasing the park, Rhodes said he read some of the Facebook comments from locals speculating about his future plans. He chuckled at the folks mentioning a casino.
“I’d love for it to be a casino,” he said. “But I don’t think the state’s going to let one pass.”
The permit application filed Monday deals with interior demolition. The permit request does not include tearing down any buildings. The property also had asbestos abatement work done there on Feb. 18, and material was removed from the Southwest Store, the Southeast Store and the former retail mall building.
Lately, Rhodes said his focus has been cleaning up the site. He’s hired crews to bush hog the overgrown weeds and he said the demolition permit will clear the way for gutting blighted interior spaces and hauling off trash.
He’s taking his time.
“It took me four years to get the property,” he said. “So I’m not in a rush to do something to the property.”