Midnight in the Garden of Burroughs & Chapin
BY TIM BULLARD
Sipping a drink, an older aristocrat raises his voice over the din of chattering voices and clinking glasses inside Collector's Cafe art restaurant at the winner's mayoral party Nov. 18 in Myrtle Beach. He's telling a racist joke. I laugh -- at him -- and exit into the night. It's getting late and, as the homeless scatter for bushes, its midnight in the garden of Burroughs & Chapin.
Republican Mark McBride, a city council member, just edged out Mayor Bob Grissom, a Democrat, by 42 votes, so this party is more lively than the losing camp's vigil at St. John's Inn on Ocean Boulevard. McBride is 33, Myrtle Beach's youngest mayor ever.
Grissom is 76. His last day on the job is Jan. 6. To understand why this military veteran was ousted requires a review of last year's events in this beach town which bills itself as family-friendly.
Trouble began at the annual Memorial Day weekend's biker events, which provoked already perturbed merchants and homeowners after an amorous couple allegedly attracted a crowd on the Boulevard while making love in a chair.
The Bike Task Force, comprised of the police chief, Atlantic Beach officials and Harley Weekend representatives, had failed. Since then, the city has been trying to figure out ways to crack down on the bikers.
McBride suggested calling out the National Guard next time as a 'last resort.' Voters remembered this and the failed TPI theme park -- which was to be built on the abandoned Air Force base and which allegedly bilked investors out of savings. Plans for the park prompted the city to build infrastructure additions and left critics wondering if the area was satiated with entertainment venues.
Candidates, like boxers with promoters, were accompanied during the campaign by political consultants paid to emulate the late Republican pit bull Lee Atwater. McBride based his campaign on a wholesome, family-oriented platform that included promises to clean up the beach.
Last year, unshaven, he bought a bong at a head shop on the Boulevard in a publicized effort to expose paraphernalia sales in Myrtle Beach. He also led the council in tackling obscene t-shirt sales.
McBride also opposed a gay nightclub near the Pavilion. He denies reports that he called homosexuals 'trash' but is on record as disapproving of their 'life-style.' McBride said that his problem with the nightclub had nothing to do with homophobia; he was simply holding true to his 'traditional family values.'
Bottom-feeding became an Olympic sport in the mayoral election, with a political ad featuring caricatures of Burroughs & Chapin CEO and President Doug Wendel as a cartoon puppeteer, a godfather fingering the strings of a marionette Mayor Grissom.
Burroughs & Chapin called the cartoon 'vile and despicable.'
While McBride campaigned against Grissom's coziness with Burroughs & Chapin, the mayor-elect and the company seem to be singing from the same hymnal.
Residents and other developers have long complained about what they perceive as preferential zoning treatment for Burroughs & Chapin. The company's immense holdings have always attracted the best highways and sewer systems.
Burroughs & Chapin is now being challenged by environmental groups for skirting laws that protect wetlands. While it is illegal to drain or fill wetlands without a permit, Burroughs & Chapin has found a way to get around the law by digging trenches around the wetlands and waiting for them to dry up.
Burroughs & Chapin is a major player in the Tourism Council that is pushing the Private Property Protection Act or, 'takings' legislation in the State House. The Council is a developers' lobby that has little to do with tourism.
Opponents of the takings bill argue that the law would do away with land use planning and restrictions on development. 'It's ironic,' said an environmentalist working against the legislation, 'that Burroughs & Chapin is pushing a bill that would allow hoochie-coochie clubs to locate next to daycare centers.
Burroughs & Chapin isn't just a force in the development of Myrtle Beach; it is the source. When F.G. Burroughs opened a general store in Conway in 1859, there was no Myrtle Beach. Burroughs built the Seaside Inn, its first hotel on the beach, in 1901. Vacationers came up from Charleston by boat.
In 1912, Simeon B. Chapin, a New York stockbroker, joined Burroughs to develop Myrtle Beach Farms. Two years later, Burroughs' widow named the town that was growing on their property Myrtle Beach.
The Farm provided postal and sanitation services. When the town incorporated in 1938, most Myrtle Beach residents owed their livelihood to Burroughs & Chapin.
Sixty years later, Burroughs & Chapin still owns most of the farm.
The Hard Rock Cafe is the cornerstone of the company's latest development, Broadway at the Beach. The $250 million complex is surrounded now by Planet Hollywood, NASCAR Cafe, Official All-Star Cafe, The Palace, an IMAX theater, Cinema 16, Celebrity Square's lounges, Ripley's Aquarium and Revolutions, a popular "retro" disco club.
It is a peculiar world, surrounded by the state's largest parking lot. Where else can you see a plastic man, bending over, blowing soap bubbles out his rectum in a shop front?
A press conference was held the morning of Nov. 25 at the Official All-Star Cafe to discuss the ninth annual Gay and Lesbian Pride March and Festival, to be held in Myrtle Beach April 30-May 3. Gay activists projected a crowd of 10,000.
By midday, Burroughs & Chapin was pressuring its tenants to back out of commitments to open their venues to the march. A spokesperson for Burroughs & Chapin said gay activists "have every right to have their march." But, "It's just not an event that Burroughs & Chapin chooses to support. We don't have a Heterosexual March or Heterosexual Day. We don't have a Protestant Day or Protestant March. We're certainly not discriminating. We certainly welcome persons from all walks of life to our properties."
The move stirred public reaction, much of it critical of Burroughs & Chapin. The company responded by placing an ad in the local paper asserting that the company, as well as the town, was founded on traditional family values. "We have not been, nor do we intend to be, forced or intimidated into supporting organized activities that we believe endanger the historic values of our nation and the cornerstones of truth on which they are based."
"I find that tragic," said Harriet Hancock, a Columbia attorney who spoke at the press conference. Hancock founded the Columbia chapter of Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays in 1982, does pro bono work for persons with HIV and AIDS, and has long been an advocate for gay rights.
"They are not child molesters," Hancock said. "They are an important part of their communities."
At Burroughs & Chapin properties, tenants are being pressured to drop their support of the Gay Pride events. But Hard Rock Cafe and the All-Star Cafe, both Burroughs & Chapin tenants at Broadway at the Beach, are going forward with their plans to host activities supporting the Pride weekend.
On Dec. 4, Burroughs & Chapin cancelled a contract for the Village People to play at Celebrity Square, in the center of Broadway at the Beach. The outdoor location is directly controlled by Burroughs & Chapin.
"What's next?" asked Tony Snell, co-chair of the Gay Lesbian Pride Movement, which is sponsoring the events. "Will they prohibit music by openly gay and lesbian artists like Elton John and KD Lang at the clubs on Burroughs & Chapin property? Will they attempt to set up barriers at Broadway asking individuals their sexual orientation before entering to spend their money? Will they begin a witch hunt and seek to fire employees that do not meet their family values because they are gay?
"A lot of money is spent [in Myrtle Beach] by gays and lesbians." Gay couples have more money to spend since there are usually no children, he said. "We're not coming down here just to talk politics and protest. It's more than that."
After the Pride press conference, Mayor-elect McBride in a TV interview said, "My personal belief is that it is a behavior-based life-style that I don't simply agree with. I like the individual. I'll do everything I can do for individuals and welcome those individuals to the city. But, I mean, there has never been really a lot of controversy here."
Burroughs & Chapin's effort to minimize the gay festival in their town may backfire.
Snell said the publicity will hurt business in Myrtle Beach. "I think any national or international businesses will need to look long and hard before moving to Myrtle Beach," he said.
Director of communications for the Human Rights Campaign David Smith said, "This is discrimination in its worst form. It's motivated by anti-gay prejudice."
Gay activists see the turn of events in Myrtle Beach as a chance to mobilize a mass crowd for the Pride March. Their battle has attracted national attention, with stories appearing in newspapers as mainstream as USA Today.
It also has attracted big-name support. Candace Gingrich, the sister of U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), and Betty DeGeneres, mother of comedian Ellen DeGeneres, have committed to speaking at the rally.
Maybe Myrtle Beach will be forced to broaden its imagination. Some might say it already has. You may remember that voters in the last election had a chance to cast a ballot for Sharon Brown, a transsexual, to serve on city council.
Brown, who performs a Whitney Houston act at Metropolis by the Sea, played the Lady Chablis role in the Myrtle Beach drama Garden of Burroughs & Chapin. She is not surprised at her defeat, nor is she bitter.
"They wanted a change, and they got it," Brown said of the voters. "I'm not sure if I agree with all the changes. I'm happy for Mark McBride. We don't agree on all the issues. I think he'll make a good mayor."
Meanwhile, rally organizers are contemplating a "buycott" of Burroughs & Chapin properties but first they want to sit down and discuss the issues with the company.
Burroughs & Chapin has drawn a line in the Grand Strand sand. How much that will cost the company, in dollars and PR points, is anybody's guess.
It also remains to be seen how Myrtle Beach merchants, politicians and residents will choose to align themselves. Their town is second only to Orlando as this country's favorite tourist destination.
Orlando's Disney World has "Gay Days." Whether Myrtle Beach wants it or not, this spring it will have a Gay Day of its own.
Tim Bullard was fired at the Florence Morning News for his POINT story in Feb. '95 on the Trucker's Motel and prostitution, and is writing a book on it. Bullard, a Laurinburg, N.C., native, has also covered the artist Howard Finster and the new Myrtle Beach museum for POINT.