Horry’s rural civic center is happening. Here’s how it could transform the county.

·11 min read

When Glenn Singleton wants to show off the horses he raises on his farm outside of Conway, he’s got to travel.

Both Georgia and North Carolina have facilities capable of hosting the kind of shows Singleton and his horses participate in, as do Clemson and Spartanburg in eastern South Carolina. But there’s no venue for those shows — or any large-scale agricultural or equestrian events — in Horry County.

If there were, Singleton said, “it would give me a place to show my horses, and it would benefit me to have one in the backyard and not have to go all across the state.”

That’s likely to soon change.

After years of discussion, and months of figuring out how to pay for it, Horry County is poised to build the kind of facility — called the rural civic center — that Singleton and others who raise crops and livestock, train horses and ride bulls could use for both business and entertainment. When the Horry County Council passed next year’s budget last week, councilors included in the spending plan $25 million for the rural civic center, a significant funding commitment that will allow the county to begin building the facility sometime next year, the most concrete progress the project has made to date.

That’s in addition to $1.2 million the county currently has in the bank — collected from a tax incentive arrangement with Horry Electric — that it can put towards the project. County Council member Johnny Vaught, as well as other county administrators, have said it’s likely the county will issue bonds for the facility and pay back that debt with the money it has available.

And council members, equestrians and others who would utilize the rural civic center say that Horry County having such a facility could be a boon to both the region’s tourism economy and the county’s tax base.

“If it was built right and run by the right people it would benefit this county greatly,” Singleton said. “It can bring in a lot of business to an area if it’s done right. The whole county would benefit from it really in tax dollars, restaurants, hotels.”

Where the project stands

At present, county council members and other local officials — all part of a committee working to design and build the rural civic center — are conducting due diligence on a piece of property the county wants to purchase to build the facility on. That property is near the intersection of Highway 319 and S.C. 22, in between Conway and Aynor, an area that’s begun attracting new residents as the county has grown but that’s still largely rural.

Mock-ups of the facility include an enclosed arena, an open-air arena, a cattle auction building, several permanent barns, a number of fields with paddocks for livestock, a warm-up ring for horses, hundreds of parking spaces and additional land for future phases of the project.

All of that would sit on more than 200 acres if the county’s current land deal moves forward.

Horry County is modeling its facility after Clemson University’s T. Ed Garrison arena in Pendleton as well as similar arenas in Georgia and elsewhere, and is likely to be similar in size and capacity. Clemson’s arena, for example, sits on 80 acres and has 440 horse stalls, four riding rings, more than 60 pens for cattle and livestock auctions and 70 sites for RVs and campers.

Vaught said he also hopes to have a shooting range and trails for horses on the site, adding that the enclosed arena will be able to accommodate large meetings, like Horry Electric’s annual membership meetings.

How the county will ultimately pay for the rural civic center isn’t yet worked out. In a 2019 meeting, Barry Spivey, one of the county’s assistant administrators, said that annual payments of $400,000 that Horry Electric makes to the county as part of a tax credit program could be used to borrow up to $7.5 million, and state officials told the county last year that doing so was allowed under state law.

Vaught said the $25 million the county allocated for the project in next year’s budget — available beginning July 1 — along with the contributions from Horry Electric will pay for buying the land and building out the first phase of the facility.

From there, the county hopes to pay for ongoing staffing and maintenance of the facility through revenues collected from renting the venue out.

“I do think it will be a very good opportunity for the western part of the county as well as bringing people into the beach, with the different horse events,” said County Council member Mark Causey, who represents the Loris area, and who said his constituents will benefit greatly from having access to a rural civic center. “There’s just so many different things that can be done there.”

Who will use the facility

Blake Lanford is the district director for Clemson University’s extension program, working in South Carolina’s coastal counties, like Horry. As part of his work for the university, he’s helped to study how agricultural and civic centers like the one Horry County is looking to build benefit local people and economies and said they work best when they’re built to host a wide variety of events and functions.

For example, Lanford said, Horry County could use its civic arena as a type of agricultural aggregator, or food hub, allowing smaller, local farms to bring their wares to a central location, bundle their products, and sell or auction their crops in bulk to major buyers like restaurants and grocery stores. That allows those major buyers to source their produce from local growers in a convenient way without having to keep track of dozens of contracts with dozens of local suppliers.

“The major piece that’s missing whether you’re taking about Horry County or Greenville County is the distribution infrastructure. We don’t have any of that,” he said. “It’s just a whole lot of opportunity.”

Lanford also pointed to the South Carolina Beekeeper’s Association, which has a large chapter in Horry County. If the rural civic center is built to accommodate buying and selling bees, honey and related products, it could serve as both a marketplace and meeting venue for that part of the agricultural sector.

The object, Lanford said, is to design a facility like a rural civic center in such a way that it can accommodate a vast number of different uses, from concerts to rodeos to livestock auctions.

“A facility like this can’t be exclusively relegated to just events or tourism,” he said. “You’d have to use it for a multitude of purposes.”

Randall Cox, who owns a truck repair business in Loris and who trains horses, said he’d like for the civic center to be able to accommodate the type of horse races and shows he typically travels out of Horry County to attend. That means quarter horse shows, barrel racing, rodeos, farm shows, livestock auctions and more, he said.

“I feel like it would be a big plus for our area and as long as they design it to where, when it opens it, (it’s) versatile,” he said. “You need to be able to use it for all sorts of agricultural events.”

To do that, Cox and others said, the county will have to build in certain features. For example, safety walls around an arena are necessary for rodeos, trails and stalls are necessary for equestrian events and large parking areas equipped with water, sewer and electricity hookups are necessary to give people traveling in RVs with livestock trailers a place to park and sleep overnight.

Horry Electric is also likely to use the facility for its large, annual membership meetings, part of why the organization has partnered with the county on the project.

Even if the county doesn’t build its entire facility at once, Cox said, it’s important to plan ahead and make sure the venue has room to grow. If the county does that, he said, “then I don’t see no way under the sun it can’t not be successful.”

Who will work there?

In October, when Horry County leaders heard a presentation about how Clemson University operated its T. Ed Garrison area, Clemson officials revealed that the way the facility remains financially solvent is by using unpaid inmate labor from the state prisons.

Following Clemson’s presentation, Vaught entertained the idea of Horry County doing something similar.

But Chrysti Shain, a spokesperson for the state prison system, argued that it wouldn’t be feasible for Horry County to use inmate labor at its civic arena because there weren’t state prisons close enough to transport incarcerated people back and forth on a daily basis.

On Friday, Vaught, too, said it was likely not feasible for the county to use incarcerated people to perform the set-up and tear-down labor at the civic arena. The closest incarcerated individuals, he said, are at the county’s J. Reuben Long jail, and many of them are there before being convicted of a crime or sentenced, meaning the county couldn’t have them work at the facility.

“The ones you can use (are) the inmates who are convicted of a crime, (and) the detention center is mostly people awaiting sentencing,” he said. “We cannot use those inmates off premises for labor because they haven’t been convicted of anything yet.”

Rather, Vaught said, it’s likely that the county will hire a handful of staff members to oversee operations of the facility and pay them with the revenue the county pulls in from renting out the arena. The county is also likely to use day laborers, possibly hired through a staffing agency, to perform the regular labor of maintaining the facility, paying them by the hour and not having to offer benefits like healthcare and retirement plans.

“That’s the cheapest way to do it, that way you’re not adding permanent employees,” he said.

Tourism economy headed west

When visitors think of Horry County, they most likely think of the dozens of miles of beaches stretching along the Atlantic Ocean.

Horry County’s rural civic center could change that.

“We’ve got the beaches and that’s the money, the golden egg so to speak, but there’s never really been anything out on this side of the county for the rural folks,” County Council member Al Allen, whose large western district will be home to the new facility, said. “We’ve been needing something.”

Both local leaders and those in the equestrian and agricultural sectors said the civic center could be a major attraction, drawing tourists away from the Ocean Boulevards and past the Waccamaw River.

“If it’s put on (Highway) 22 then you’ll be able to use motels from Myrtle Beach, North Myrtle Beach Conway, Loris — you’ll be able to draw crowds from every direction,” Cox, the horse trainer, said. “And on (Highway) 22 hopefully you’d have enough land you can put campgrounds.”

What’s yet to be seen is if building the civic center will eventually attract hotels, restaurants, gas stations and residents to a more rural part of Horry County. The county’s growth has pushed Westward in recent decades, and more and more new residents are purchasing homes in neighborhoods located in rural areas. Some local leaders said they expect to see some growth, but also that they expect the new facility to coexist with the tourism amenities closer to the beach.

“Even if it’s out in a more rural part of the county, there’s infrastructure, there’s still places within 10 to 15 minutes where (visitors) can stay and plenty of restaurants. I don’t necessarily think that one thing begets more of another,” said Karen Riorden, the president and CEO of the Myrtle Beach Area Chamber of Commerce. “We have plenty of lodging to support new attractions and new product.”

Even if the new facility is unlikely to bring new hotels and a beach-like business district to the Conway-Aynor area, Allen said he hopes it will bring some new money and new opportunities to the county’s rural areas.

“Even though it may bring some growth with those things ... it’s going to keep the theme of that rural heritage out here,” he said.

Vaught added that the facility will boost the county’s tax base, allowing the county to bolster services in the rural areas.

“I think it’s going to be a great draw and the thing about it is it’s going to benefit the whole the county,” he said. “All of us are very, very excited about it.”

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