Horry County leaders began narrowing down their list of possible sites for a multi-million dollar civic center and equestrian arena last week.
County officials discussed six potential locations Friday and they reviewed conceptual plans for three of them, although they showed strong interest in one tract.
Plans for the complex also continue to evolve. Now county officials are considering a large farmers market, a camping area and possibly a shooting range for the project.
“The whole concept is to get some rural tourism in this area,” Horry County Councilman Danny Hardee said. “We don’t have it out here. … Anything you add is just going to be a plus to this project.”
Interest in the center is being driven by Horry Electric Cooperative, which has provided the county with $1.2 million for the facility and plans to contribute an estimated $400,000 per year for the foreseeable future. That money comes from economic development funding that the cooperative would remit to the state if the county didn't use it.
Horry Electric leaders want the county to build a facility that will be large enough for the cooperative to hold an annual meeting for its members. The center would not only be available for membership meetings, but county officials envision the facility as a draw for rodeos, farm equipment shows and other equestrian or agricultural events. They also hope the site could be rented by outside groups such as the Shriners or veterans organizations.
On Friday, a special committee of county council members, cooperative leaders and other agriculture industry representatives spoke about the need for the complex to include a farmers market similar to the large-scale operations in Greenville and Florence.
“It would be excellent to put this on the site with this arena,” said Benjie Andrew, who serves on the S.C. Agriculture Commission. “We’ve talked about it for years. I just think this is an opportunity. The site’s big enough that the county might could work something out with the state ag commission or whatever to actually fund the facility and get it here.”
Apart from incorporating the farmers market into the plans, committee members reviewed six locations that county officials said had been picked from suggestions they received from the public. The properties ranged in size from just under 45 acres to 818 acres. The lowest fair market value for a site was $349,280 and the highest was $10.7 million for the former Rolling Hills golf course near Aynor.
The committee reviewed conceptual plans for three properties: a 229-acre tract off Green Sea Road, a 215.7-acre site beside U.S. 501, and 818 acres near the intersection of S.C. 22 and S.C. 319.
Although they were presented with multiple options, county officials expressed interest in one — the 818-acre tract. That property has a fair market value of over $2.5 million.
“I really like the idea of being off of [S.C.] 22,” county councilman Johnny Vaught told the committee. “If we don’t have it accessible to 22, I think we’re missing the boat because we still have to recognize that even though what we’re trying to define here as rural activities, we’ve still got that Atlantic Ocean over there and people are going to want to stay over there.”
This property had also been discussed at a previous meeting, and some county officials said they might be able to purchase part of the tract from the landowner rather than buy the entire thing. The land is owned by Aynor-based Bay Lakes Inc., according to county records.
County staff also said there is property in that area that could hold a convenience store or other neighborhood service facilities to support the proposed center.
“This could be a rural activity hub, so to speak, for this area,” said Ashley Cowen, a senior planner with Horry County Government.
She said the 818-acre site does fall in the Highway 319 Rural Heritage Area Plan, a set of development guidelines that encourage the preservation of the area as a “slow-growth” country corridor.
However, she said the 319 plan shouldn’t present a challenge for building an equestrian center there.
“This is a rural sort of use,” she said. “That shouldn’t be too much of a problem. Again, we need to get community input on that, which of course we would do anyway.”
Cowen noted that some subdivisions are being developed along S.C. 319, but the biggest project potentially impacting the area could be the connection of I-73 with S.C. 22, if the interstate is ever funded.
She also said the property holds wetlands and some of those would likely have to be filled to accommodate any development. There would be a cost for improving highway access as well.
Regardless of where the county builds the center, the project has the potential to be a boon to the local economy, said Blake Lanford, coastal district director with Clemson Extension.
“We’ve always thought that Myrtle Beach, Horry County in particular, was well suited in terms of the existing tourism infrastructure for an equestrian style facility," he said. "[Such a facility is] every bit as much of an economic development tool as the [Myrtle Beach] convention center or that outdoor recreation complex in North Myrtle Beach. We see that as a viable investment. We also see outdoor recreation as an under-leveraged opportunity in the county.”
Lanford said a key question is how much does the county want to spend on the project.
“It’s simply a matter of the county making a commitment to the investment,” he said. “Because none of the facilities that you look at effectively pay for themselves. They’re all supported in some way, shape or form by the state or the body politic where the facilities exist.”
Despite committee members' interest in one particular site, county officials stressed that no final decision has been made. The committee will discuss the project further when it meets again in March.
“This is something that’s been a long time coming,” Hardee, the councilman, said. “It should have already been here. … I wish we could cut the ribbon today.”