Putting best foot forward reaps dividends

You never get a second chance to make a first impression. It's a saying city leaders take to heart as they focus on anti-litter and beautification efforts in their municipalities.

Clean roadways, parks, neighborhoods and city facilities make an impact on residents and visitors alike and can affect tourism and economic development activities.

For a tourism town, overall appearance is a critical issue, according to Myrtle Beach City Manager John Pedersen.

Big Sweep, Myrtle Beach, SC
Big Sweep, Myrtle Beach, SC

"The key of our tourism strategy is to get people here the first time. If we do that then we believe they will return to enjoy what we have to offer," Pedersen said. "That being said, cleanliness is critical because it creates the all-important first impression of a community. It doesn't matter how nice the hotel is or how fun the attractions are or how beautiful it is on the beach if the first impression is a turn-off. We tell our litter crews that they are instrumental to our success because they are responsible for that first impression."

The City of Myrtle Beach focuses a great deal of effort on maintaining the minimum standards of the state Building Code and International Property Maintenance Code within residential neighborhoods, Pedersen said. The city's nuisance abatement process allows them to expedite compliance through an administrative procedure. This process has allowed city officials to deal with issues ranging from weedy lots to closing structures with high levels of criminal activity.

This year, city council approved two initiatives that focus on bringing unkempt structures and vacant properties up to code. The Neighborhood Initiative focuses on fragile residential communities, while the Downtown Initiative focuses on the redevelopment of original downtown properties near the ocean. An extra inspector has been proposed for the FY 2015-16 budget to split time between these two areas, Pedersen said.

Tourism also plays an important role in Walterboro's economy, making it essential that the city provide an attractive, clean, welcoming environment for visitors, said Walterboro City Manager Jeff Molinari.

Walterboro, SC
Walterboro, SC

Walterboro contracts with Colleton Industries, an employment program for people with special needs and disabilities, to pick up litter on 25 streets inside the city, including the entire downtown area, on a weekly basis. Also, the City Appearance Board organizes city-wide cleanups where individuals can volunteer to pick up litter, Molinari said.

Easily accessible from exits 53 and 57 along the I-95 corridor, Walterboro has extensively landscaped the interchanges at those exits with the city's Parks Department maintaining the landscaping.

Walterboro recently completed a downtown arborscape project that included new tree plantings, sidewalk and curbing repairs, and specialty paving crosswalks. Brick monument columns were placed at key intersections.

The most significant beautification project that the city has undertaken is the I-95 Business Loop, Molinari said. The city has identified a 6.35 mile transportation corridor that runs through the city from I-95 exit 53 to exit 57. The project will include sidewalks, crosswalks, landscaped medians, wayfinding signage, ornamental street lighting and decorative mast arms. The arborscape and landscaping projects have been a great source of pride for residents and have been very well-received by visitors, Molinari reported.

A visitor's first impression is often the streetscape that they see as they enter a community, agreed Florence City Manager Drew Griffin.

"If that streetscape is well tended and generally litter-free then that is the impression that is imprinted in their mind," Griffin said. "You only get that chance once."

A clean streetscape also speaks volumes to businesses and developers, he added.

"New industry and other business interests want to invest in a strong community with residents who are involved and concerned about their physical environment," Griffin said. "It speaks to responsibility and a good work ethic. In general terms the physical environment speaks to the quality of life and to community pride. Those same qualities are what employers are looking for when they hire."

In recent years, the City of Florence has constructed 20 miles of trails and preserved more than 1000 acres of open space. The Keep Florence Beautiful Committee holds annual litter collections. Neighborhood groups work with the city and hold neighborhood clean-up days.

Florence, SC
Florence, SC

City officials are investing more than $25 million over a three-year period in streetscape and beautification projects within the downtown and other important highways and street corridors. Some of these funds are being invested in a manner that connects neighborhoods and makes the city more walkable. As people walk more they will become more connected to the physical environment and will in turn recognize the importance of beautification, Griffin said.

The Town of Mount Pleasant has a very high standard for how its public spaces are maintained, which includes keeping roads, parks, town facilities, and natural assets like the marshes and Shem Creek free from litter and maintained at a certain level, according to Mount Pleasant Assistant Town Administrator Katherine Hendricks.

There is an economic benefit to tourism, and in tourism, image is everything, Hendricks said.

"Take for example Shem Creek as a destination. Having a waterway that is litter-free and clean helps keep the local economy vibrant so visitors want to come and recreate on the creek and think local when it comes to dining out for fresh seafood," she said.

Anti-litter and beautification efforts help foster the tourism industry, which has a tangible financial impact on the town as demonstrated through its accommodations and hospitality tax revenues, Hendricks said. These funds are used to support tourism activities and even employ 16 police officers and 30 firefighters.

"Mount Pleasant is known for its natural beauty and high quality amenities, and its takes everyone working together to maintain the quality of life everyone has come to enjoy," she added.

New legislation approved this year sets up a Litter Commission through the state Department of Natural Resources, aimed at tackling the state's litter problem. Previously, the state's litter efforts had been hit or miss, said Rep. Gilda Cobb-Hunter, who introduced the legislation.

"The problem for me has been a lack of a coordinated, collaborative, consistent approach to picking up litter in this state," Cobb-Hunter said.

Help a Critter - Don't Litter poster
"Help a Critter - Don't Litter" posters are available from the
SC Department of Natural Resources.

The new Litter Commission is comprised of 12 entities, both state and private. It was created so the expertise of various agencies, organizations and resources could be united under one umbrella as a way to bridge communications and facilitate action surrounding the issues of litter removal, prevention, education and litter law enforcement for the state, according to Valerie Shannon, DNR's litter program coordinator.

Allen Hutto, government relations officer for the SC Department of Transportation, worked closely with Rep. Cobb-Hunter in establishing the coalition. SCDOT serves as the vice chair of the Commission.

Hutto said bringing stakeholders together is crucial because there are so many agencies and jurisdictions that are responsible for litter prevention and removal.

"As an example of the importance of partnerships, the Department of Corrections provides inmate labor for cleanup on the interstates. We recently signed a Memorandum of Understanding with DOC and the Department of Public Safety that ensures we give prior notice to DOC before we mow a certain area. This way, the area is cleaned before mowing, and there are not little pieces of trash strewn all over the roadside," Hutto said.

"Partnering and communication are also important with local jurisdictions and other state agencies such as the courts and SC Department of Probation, Parole and Pardon Services. A local jurisdiction may not have enough personnel to perform litter removal, but partnering with the courts or DPP opens up a potential source for them."

Cobb-Hunter and other lawmakers know litter prevention efforts are important on both the state and local levels.

A clean community instills pride in residents and affects economic development, said state Sen. Kevin Johnson, former mayor of Manning.

"You never know who's driving through your community," he said. "It's very important to keep it clean and neat. That could be the one deciding factor for an industry or residents looking to move there."