By Barney Blakeney
The annual Memorial Day Weekend Black Bikefest will kick off this weekend and despite traffic loops and lawsuits, its Atlantic Beach originators anticipate thousands to attend who will provide the mini-community its most substantial yearly economic injection. But facing many challenges, the event could become a thing of the past.
Begun in 1980, at its peak Bikefest drew some 300,000 people to Atlantic Beach and surrounding communities. The event now draws some 100,000 attendees. Still the predominantly Black biker rally injects over $50 million into the local economy over the three-day weekend. Neighboring Myrtle Beach, Atlantic Beach’s larger white counterpart, boasts the state’s highest grossing tourism economy. Atlantic Beach draws proportionately less of the revenue from the event it created. At its beginning Bikefest started across a few blocks in Atlantic Beach’s 0.2 miles. Now, the annual Memorial Day weekend event spreads miles across Myrtle Beach and surrounding communities.
Because Atlantic Beach offers so few amenities to visitors, the annual event usually contributes only about $60,000 to the town’s coffers. Business owner and former town councilman John Skeeters said the town’s relatively few business owners fare a little better earning “a couple hundred thousand” during the festivities.
But things are changing. Over time in the city of Myrtle Beach the bikefest has become marred by violence and other illegal behavior. A street party on Bikefest weekend in 2014 resulted in a shooting that killed three people.
According to one source, in 2016 law enforcement in Myrtle Beach made 784 arrests, filed 1,138 charges and answered 3,509 calls for service over the weekend. Ten weapons offenses were cited including six reports of shootings that led to at least one death. Myrtle Beach has fought back. Business owners closed up during the weekend and law enforcement enacted several initiatives designed to control the crowd and traffic that included increased police presence and a 23-mile one-way traffic loop.
Local NAACP officials have challenged both those initiatives. While most businesses have relented, law enforcement remains unrelenting. Skeeters said Atlantic Beach also is undeterred. The only thing that will temper the town’s enthusiasm is the scattered rains forecast for the weekend. Town officials have not been invited to the discussions about crime and crowd control, he said, although Atlantic Beach only has experienced minor crimes during the Bikefest. Beyond the misdemeanor crimes that might be expected with thousands of young people, Atlantic Beach hasn’t experienced any major crime, town officials noted.
Skeeters thinks law enforcement initiatives merit a second look. “Anything that causes more problems than it solves should be readjusted,” he said. Amid threats to boycott the event, Skeeters says such an economic void could hasten the dissolution of the approximately 350-resident township. With high taxes and dwindling municipal resources the town already is losing ground, he said.