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Myrtle Beach’s next city manager responds to questions about his new role, city’s challenges

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Jonathan F. “Fox” Simons Jr. (left) is in negotiations to be the Myrtle Beach city manager. The council is slated to meet Jan. 7. Current City Manager John Pedersen announced his retirement earlier in the year. Mayor Brenda Bethune said 66 people applied for the position. Bethune said the 66 candidates were narrowed to 11 semifinalists and eventually down to three candidates. The city council interviewed three finalists over two days in executive session. Simons started working for the city in 2015 as assistant city manager. He has been deputy assistant manager since 2019. Photo by Janet Morgan/janet.morgan@myhorrynews.com

Myrtle Beach officials want a familiar face in the city manager job.

Fox Simons, the deputy city manager, has worked in local government for more than two decades, including the last five on the Grand Strand.

Before coming to Myrtle Beach, he held multiple positions with the city of Greenville (July 2001-September 2006) and he served as Easley’s city administrator (October 2006-February 2015).

In 2015, Simons became Myrtle Beach’s assistant city manager. He stepped into the deputy city manager role last year.

His new job is expected to begin Jan. 7. Last week, Myrtle Beach City Council voted to enter into contract negotiations with Simons for the city manager position. Once a formal agreement is signed, he can begin working in his new post.

Simons would succeed retiring city manager John Pedersen.

The Herald interviewed Simons about the city manager position and his plans for Myrtle Beach. Parts of this Q&A have been edited for clarity and length.

Q: There has clearly been tension between the city and Horry County over the past few years, whether it’s regarding the dispute about The Market Common/TIF (tax increment financing) district, the hospitality fee case or the lawsuit over the campground land that arose recently. What do you think is the problem here, and how can things be fixed?

A: Some of the issues are long-standing ones, while others are relatively new. As we always have, we try and work through the conflicts as they come up, but sometimes we can’t. It may help to understand that the city of Myrtle Beach and Horry County are equal partners. The city does not report to the county. Myrtle Beach, like every municipality in Horry County, is independent, with rights and responsibilities granted by the state. The county doesn’t sit at a higher place at the table. 

Q: Myrtle Beach is obviously a tourism-centric area. This seems to limit its opportunities when it comes to the types of jobs available here and a dependency on peak times of the year. Do you have plans to diversify the business community and economy in the city?

A: In a word, yes. That’s one of the reasons why the city invested $2.5 million in Horry County’s ITAP (International Technology & AeroSpace Park), adjacent to Myrtle Beach International Airport and The Market Common. That’s also why the city has been investing in the Arts & Innovation District. We also are excited by the prospect of more technical, work-from-anywhere jobs, thanks to input from the Technology Advisory Group. The co-working space [on 9th Avenue North] should be open in the fall of 2021. This is a significant step in diversifying our economy. 

Q: What do think are the city’s main assets?

A: In addition to the Atlantic Ocean and the beach — which is obvious — the city’s best asset is the community. While the center of the city is downtown, the heartbeat is the people. The residents of Myrtle Beach are some of the finest people you’ll ever meet. In terms of physical assets, we have a wealth of business, shopping, dining and recreational opportunities, unlike any other town of 35,000 people in the country. Broadway at the Beach, the Market Common district, Grande Dunes and the many new residential neighborhoods all are assets to keeping Myrtle Beach vibrant and healthy. You can also look to the Myrtle Beach Convention Center and Myrtle Beach International Airport once the economy rebounds from COVID-19. 

Q: Myrtle Beach is touted as a renowned vacation destination. Is there a way to keep this status while also attracting year-round residents?

A: I think we’re already accomplishing that. Look at the home sales numbers. They are up 10% or more over last year, even in the middle of a pandemic. We’ve [the Myrtle Beach area] been the second-fastest growing MSA [metropolitan statistical area] in the country for the past three years. Our longtime vacationers are converting to residents, but we’re also seeing new residents who are just now discovering all that Myrtle Beach has to offer. 

Q: One Grand Strand’s recent presentation to city council noted that thriving downtowns have knowledge economies. Is there a need for that in Myrtle Beach? 

A: Again, yes, and that’s where the partnership with HTC for the co-work space and the input from the Technology Advisory Group will come in handy. We have the opportunity to build upon our coastal setting and attract those work-from-anywhere technical jobs and skills. 

Q: Where do you see opportunities for economic development for the city? 

A: Tourism will probably always be our No. 1 industry, but there are other opportunities. The ITAP is available, and we’re looking to boost new businesses in the downtown area, thanks to the Arts & Innovation District.

Q: More growth means more vehicles in the city. Any plans for making more parking available?

A: We take parking into consideration on almost everything we do. Ideally, we’d like to see more people leave their cars and ride a bike, take a trolley or bus or just walk to their destinations. “More parking” may not be the answer in every situation. Instead, we also want to look at how we can scale back the need for parking — not that it will ever go away. As part of the downtown master plan, we’ve contemplated a parking garage or two above one of the new public buildings. That’s part of the wish list.

Q: Growth also creates water and sewage demands. Are there plans to address this?

A: We have a good partner with Grand Strand Water and Sewer Authority, which provides our wholesale water and sewer needs.  As new development occurs, the system expands.

Q: A surging population also creates a need for homes. Obviously, there is a finite amount of land for development. How can the city address this need?

A: Cities provide a higher level of service than unincorporated areas, so people who choose to live in the city of Myrtle Beach do so because they want that extra service. We’ve seen strong residential home construction in recent years. That part of the economy has not been affected by COVID-19. We still have some room for new residential growth. We also have many established neighborhoods that are very attractive.

Q: Any thoughts on limiting development at oceanfront areas?

A: The space is limited already by the fact that there’s only so much land fronting the ocean. We also have a number of planned unit developments in place which set forth how growth in those areas along Ocean Boulevard will occur. We’ve talked about beach capacity through the years and will need to keep an eye on that, but it doesn’t look as if we’ve exceeded our abilities yet. 

Q: A growing population results in more trash. What are the city’s current efforts to manage solid waste and what additional steps can be taken to address this? 

A: The city is in the process of building a new solid waste transfer station. We’re hoping to have this operational by the third quarter of 2021.

Q: How is revitalizing downtown Myrtle Beach, a coastal city, different from doing so in a community you worked in previously such as Greenville? Are there challenges?

A: One of the biggest differences between Greenville and Myrtle Beach is in Greenville, a lot of the infrastructure ... was already in place. In downtown Myrtle Beach, we are having to construct it. Also, Greenville has been doing this since the early 1990s, so they’ve had about a 25-30-year head start. When we started our redevelopment in 2018 (in Myrtle Beach), we said it was going to take many years. None of this happens overnight. A similarity between Greenville and Myrtle Beach is the public-private partnerships. We have seen that here already with Mashburn (Construction), Grand Strand Brewery, [Coastal Carolina University] and the theater, and the HTC Aspire Hub. For downtown redevelopment to occur, it is going to require public-private partnerships such as the ones mentioned. When you examine Greenville’s development, you will see the impact of public-private partnerships.

Q: What are some challenges you feel the city faces as it recovers from the impacts of COVID-19? Do you foresee a way to recover from an economic standpoint without raising taxes during the next few years?

A: We’re going to have to wait and see what transpires. A year ago, no one was predicting a pandemic for 2020. 

Q: You’re obviously stepping in as [current city manager] John Pedersen’s successor. What are some things achieved during his time in office you feel you could build upon? What are some differences and new things you feel can be done with you on the job?

A: John has done a great job for the city, and he will be missed. He started the transformation of redeveloping the downtown, and that is the biggest thing we will build from.

Q: Do you believe you are continuing Pedersen’s vision, or looking to forge your own path? 

A: John and I agree on many things, but we are two different people. I’ll forge my own path, but the goals are the same.

Q: Do you find the city’s employee base to be diverse? How many city department heads are persons of color? Do you believe diversity is important in regard to the city’s staff and having different voices represented?

A: Diversity is very important. Currently we have two department heads who are people of color. We need more, and we’ll work on bettering that. The more diverse people we have at the decision table, the better the decision. 

Q: In your application for the city manager job, you noted a demand for parks and open space in the city. Can you elaborate, and do you feel there are additional opportunities for city services?

A: As mentioned earlier, we are the second fastest growing MSA in the country. With the growth comes a need for parks and open space. The community needs more playing fields for our recreational programs, our tennis center is in need of expansion and we need to address the growing demand of pickleball. 

Q: Does Myrtle Beach have an image problem, particularly when it comes to crime? If so, why do you think this is the case, and how can this be addressed?

A: We’ve made great strides in recent years thanks to the new technology available to the police department as well as the retention and recruitment plan for the staff. This is one of those areas where we are singled out simply because we are Myrtle Beach, and we need to be aware of that. Our crime rates are lower today than they were 10 and 20 years ago. If we can keep up the current pace on public safety, we’ll see the national attention diminish. 

Q: How do you feel the city’s efforts to deter crime have been working? Is there more that can be done?

A: We’ve made great progress. Our success rate on solving crimes is high, thanks in large part to the 1,000-plus cameras that keep a watchful eye on our streets and public spaces. Crime prevention means taking away the opportunity to become a victim, and that’s what we’re doing through our active policing, use of technology and cooperation with the community. For example, we have nearly 30 neighborhood watch groups.

Q: Do you feel that manpower is the solution to crime issues, or are there alternatives that should be considered?

A: We’ve already considered and implemented alternate methods, namely the “real time” crime unit, which keeps an eye on 1,000-plus cameras. If you commit a crime here, chances are good that we can see you and track you and arrest you — all very quickly. The automated license plate readers also allow us to quickly know when a violator arrives. Our police department is one of the most modern and responsive in the state. We were the first to issue body-worn cameras to all of our officers.

Q: The city has several “doughnut holes” (sections of county land surrounded by the city limits.) Do you foresee annexation?

A: This is a question for the South Carolina General Assembly.  The lawmakers in Columbia created the doughnut holes — enclaves — and gave the decision on annexation to the property owners. Other states do not have this issue.

Q: Myrtle Beach was labeled a COVID-19 hotspot this year. Do you feel that perception still exists? Amid a recent spike in cases, how what can be done going forward to limit the spread of the virus? Is a mask mandate enough?

A: Actually, the Myrtle Beach area was labeled a hotspot.  People tend to think of the whole place as “Myrtle Beach.” While we had some issues in the city early on, the mask requirement has made a difference. Most of the recent spike in cases seems to be occurring in the unincorporated area of the county. 

Q: As climate change affects coastal communities such as ours and results in increasingly serious weather events, do you believe the city is well equipped if a major storm was to hit? Are there things that could be done differently? 

A: Our building setback line from the ocean is greater than what the state requires. We renourish the beach when it’s needed. We have great partners in the state and county emergency management offices. We have trained for “the big one,” but until it hits, we won’t know for sure. The goal is to get everything back to normal as quickly as possible after a storm.

Q: What do you think can be done to tackle the issue of sea level rise?

A: Holding back Mother Nature isn’t in the city’s power, but we are conscious of the long-range effects that our planning and zoning decisions have. As mentioned earlier, our setbacks are greater than what the state requires, and we renourish the beach at regular intervals. The beach and the dunes are the first line of defense against the ocean, and we are very protective of those natural resources.

Q: Why did you decide to come to Myrtle Beach? Do you feel there have been improvements here within the past few years? What do you like doing when you’re not working?

A: Myrtle Beach is the leader among local governments in South Carolina, and to have the ability to come work and raise my family here has been the pinnacle of my career. We’ve discussed many of the improvements such as crime reduction, downtown revitalization earlier in this interview. When I’m not working, I enjoy spending time with my family. We have a 16[-year-old] and 14-year-old, so the time we have with them before they go off to college is running out. When I’m not spending time with my family, you can probably find me watching a game or on a golf course. I’m an avid sports fan, and I love to play golf. In addition, I’m an avid reader.

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As the group One Grand Strand pointed out our reputation is horrible, our kids move away due to that and a lack of opportunities. Our city is not safe and our debt is $208,000,000 while North Myrtle's is $7,100,000. The DRC was created about 2009 to "develop downtown." So how does downtown look after all the money that they spent running people off and buying up property secretly? And it is not gone! It is being used as a FRONT to allow the city to have tax credits it is not entitled to by law. Yet this Mayor and council decided to hire a person trained by the failed manager. It is a say day. When will voters wake up?

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