On a recent visit to a state whose Republican governor rejected $700 million in federal stimulus funds, I got a sense of how deep the economic slide has been. Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, is a prime resort destination for families from New York and New Jersey to Ohio and North Carolina. But the unemployment rate in Horry County, home of Myrtle Beach, reached 14.3 per cent in February, with the state as a whole at 10.7 per cent, among the worst in the nation (where the average in February was 8.1 per cent).
Nevertheless South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford has said he will reject federal stimulus funds – to keep the government off our backs, of course. Now Republicans competing to succeed him are debating his decision.
Tourism is life on the Grand Strand, with its long, long beach lined with miles of high-rise timeshare condos and hotels and more than a hundred golf courses in the area. But for families coping with job loss, cancelling the summer vacation at the beach is one of the most obvious moves – which means economic disaster here.
The Myrtle Beach Sun-News compared the current drop in hotel occupancy rates to the period following 9-11. One travel expert, Jeff Higley of Smith Travel Research, told the Sun-News that "it took six years for rates to get back to pre-Sept. 11 levels," and suggested that 2009 could bring a similarly protracted decline.
The Grand Strand claims the third highest number of timeshare resorts in the country, after Florida and California. But current timeshare sales have been crippled not only by the paucity of buyers but by changes in the resorts' ability to provide financing. Timeshare mortgages used to be bundled and sold as securities, but "the ability to do that stopped in August," according to Howard Nusbaum, president and CEO of the American Resort Development Association, quoted in the Sun-News. Marriot, a major timeshare developer in Myrtle Beach, reported that sales declined 28 per cent in the fourth quarter of 2008, and further declines are inevitable.
As the timeshares go, so goes the rest of the economy here. At a strip mall on the main drag in North Myrtle Beach, Goldberg's Deli continues to offer pastrami and corned beef to any New Yorkers who show up, but much of the rest of the mall is empty – the gym is gone, along with the coffee place, the mailbox store, and the nail salon. Upscale steak houses that cater to visiting golfers were mostly empty on a recent weekend. Myrtle Beach also claims to be the world capital of miniature golf, but there was little action on those courses either.
Another sign of the times: the biggest new tourist attraction here in decades, Hard Rock amusement park, a $400 million operation, opened in April and went bankrupt in September and closed.
Governor Sanford will be termed-out at the end of next year, and Republican hopefuls are already jockeying for position in the primary. At a recent debate in Columbia, Republicans debated whether to accept the stimulus money. Attorney General Henry McMaster, one possible candidate, is considering whether to rule that the legislature can accept the $700 million without the governor's approval.
Lt. Gov. Andre Bauer, another candidate, has already urged the governor to accept the money. The issue is difficult for Republicans candidates, who have to run to the right, as "fiscal conservatives," in their primary, but then in the general election will have to face economically suffering mainstream voters.
The next big weekend here, after spring break and Canadian-American days, is the Harley Davidson rally in May. "If the bikers don't show up," one local told me, "we'll really be in trouble."