Though the economy has been in the tank, at least a couple of local experts say things are beginning to look up.
At Tuesday's Myrtle Beach City Council meeting, Don Schunk, research economist for Coastal Carolina University, said Myrtle Beach has laid solid groundwork for itself and the area, and "we stand a good chance of coming out of this stronger than before."
Taylor Damonte, director of the Clay Brittain Jr. Center for Resort Tourism at CCU, who looks at accommodations data and offered his own information as part of a presentation with Schunk, said bookings in the next four weeks should rise at vacation rental properties, perhaps to as much as 80 percent occupancy in the first week of June.
He also said hotel occupancy rates could be up as much as 10 percent over last year at the same time.
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Damonte said his research indicates the focus the city and the Myrtle Beach Area Chamber of Commerce have chosen - the spring - is a good one.
Their presentations followed one by Brad Dean, chamber president and CEO, who told the council the money his group has spent on out-of-area marketing is working and should help speed the area's recovery.
The most recent quarter's collection of Myrtle Beach's 1 percent sales tax for tourism came in about 7 percent - or $300,000 - over what city budget director Michael Shelton estimated, giving the Myrtle Beach Area Chamber of Commerce that much more to spend on out-of-market tourism promotions.
So far, the city - and the chamber because it gets 100 percent of the sales tax revenue for the first year - has collected $9.3 million. That and about $6 million more received from the state, from private donations and other municipalities has been spent on advertising on TV and the Internet in 69 out-of-area markets, reaching 63.6 million households.
Dean said $4.1 million has been spent on digital media and $4.8 million on TV ads, buying spots on 250-plus stations.
"There is a Myrtle Beach ad on TV every day somewhere," Dean said. "The community has never been able to reach that kind of market."
He said four out of five first-time visitors are introduced to the city on the Internet, and the chamber's website has already had more than 2 million unique website user-sessions this year. If that trend continues, he said, the chamber's website could have a record 6 million to 7 million hits this year.
The money has also gone toward increasing the number of keyword-search-strings in which Myrtle Beach appears, to direct people back to the chamber's site for more information. There are now 4,000 or more keywords that will refer people here.
The chamber said it also spent about $700,000 marketing the area to convention groups and sports groups.
Part of the attention the city is getting now is because of the new boardwalk. Dean said it has attracted national attention.
"The CBS Morning Show" will be in Myrtle Beach on Friday to broadcast from the new boardwalk, Dean said, showing how the city's newest amenity is helping with promotions.
In addition, he announced, Buddy Valastro, TLC's "The Cake Boss," who is building a 10-foot flip-flop-shaped cake for this weekend's boardwalk ribbon cutting, will feature the building of that cake on his TV show later this summer.
Dean said the chamber has focused on the "spring push" not to replace the motorcycle rallies the city shooed outside its borders in 2008, but to rebuild the May market.
The city has been marketed again as a value destination for families that might like to come on weekends, but also for the large slice of the potential-visitor market that doesn't have school-age children or has no children at all.
Dean said the broad, deep advertising campaign will help the city recover from the recession earlier than other areas, but cautioned that this is still a tough year and that the slump isn't over yet.
However, if the positive signs the chamber is seeing continue, the city could be on the upswing again soon.
Schunk warned that consumer spending is likely to grow slowly, which means the economy will recover slowly, although because of some of the investments the area has made over the past couple of years - such as the boardwalk - the Grand Strand could recover more quickly.
He said he doesn't think the housing foreclosure problem is over yet and predicted housing prices will stay lower a while longer.
But it isn't all hopeless, he said.
"There is a real recovery happening," he said. It's going to be slow and cautious, with pockets of surges in the housing market, but consumer spending and confidence are going up, even in South Carolina.
He said it looks like the Grand Strand hit bottom in the late summer of 2009, and that since then, numbers have been getting better.
The state's economy has added jobs in each of the past five months, but he said it could be 2015 before the area gets back to where it was two years ago.
"We've got a horribly long way to go," he said.
Damonte said one of the problems with area lodging is that the average daily rates for rooms has dropped. For example, he said, this year in the spring, the average daily rate has been $77.35, while at the same time last year, it was $86.23.
But, he said, because spring is where the greatest losses have occurred over the past few years, it's also the time of year that could show the greatest improvement.
In addition to these presentations at Tuesday's meeting, the city held a public hearing on its proposed 2010-2011 budget. No one spoke except Shelton, who presented a budget the council has heard and discussed before - a total of $136 million, including a 5 percent increase to solid-waste collection fees and a $3 per day parking fee at the Myrtle Beach Convention Center.
The city is planning a budget workshop next week and will have to cast two votes before the fiscal plan is considered approved.
One of the items in the budget - the ending of the city's funding for Myrtle's Market farmers' market - could be removed, however.
City Councilman Wayne Gray said a resident pointed out a change in city procedure that could save $75,000 a year from the general fund.
Right now, the city takes utility payments by credit card and is charged for each transaction. The money to pay for the transactions come from the general fund.
But Gray said that by simply shifting the transaction-fee payments back to each department they are associated with - water and sewer and solid waste, for example - the general fund would get back $75,000 of the approximately $100,000 in transaction fees it pays out on about $5 million worth of credit-card transactions a year.
The market, which costs about $24,000 a year in advertising, maintenance and the manager's pay, was going to be turned over to a private group to run or be shut down to save money as the city tightens its belt.
Gray said the extra money could also be used to help fund the city's $31,100 Fourth of July fireworks show, which is also proposed to be cut to save costs.Contact LORENA ANDERSON at 444-1722.
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