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Highway 17: Foundation marks 10 years of keeping median green
By Charles Swenson
There were two killing frosts. Then summer was hotter and wetter than usual. Plants in the median of Highway 17 in Litchfield have endured worse. There were hurricanes like Hugo and Floyd. There were snow and ice storms. And there were drivers who ran off the road.
What the landscaped median couldn’t survive was the financial drought that loomed when the Litchfield Co. announced that it would no longer fund maintenance. But in the decade since, the landscape thrived and even expanded with community support cultivated by the nonprofit Litchfield Beautification Foundation.
“It was a long battle when we got started,” said Bill McElroy, the first chairman of the group. “I feel like a grandfather to it, not a father, a grandfather.”
What has made the foundation successful is its board, said Ron Eaglin, the current president. “There’s no overhead. This group is all donors,” he said.
Eaglin admits he doesn’t know anything about plants. What he does know is fundraising. He was chancellor of what is now Coastal Carolina University from 1985 to 1992 when it was still part of the University of South Carolina system. He remembers driving through Litchfield before the landscaping. “It was nothing but grass,” he said.
In 1986, the Litchfield Co. got an encroachment permit from the state Department of Transportation to landscape the median and shoulders of the highway along 1.6 miles of Highway 17 from what was then known as the Waccamaw House to Litchfield Drive. The company was developing Willbrook Plantation and planned to align the entrance of Litchfield by the Sea, the hotel – now Litchfield Beach and Golf Resort – and the soon-to-be constructed Willbrook Boulevard. “As far as we know, this is the only case where a private company has undertaken to beautify a public highway,” Bill Miller, president of Litchfield by the Sea, said at the time.
Foster McKissick, the Litchfield Co. president, said he had doubted the state would approve the plan. When it did, he said at the time he hoped the landscaping would have the added benefit of slowing traffic on the highway.
McKissick always had a eye for landscaping on the Litchfield Co. developments, said Henry Jobe, a founding member of the beautification foundation who used to play tennis with McKissick. Jobe called McKissick, who died in a plane crash in 1990, a “visionary.”
“I don’t think most of the people in this room realize what that highway has done for their property values,” Jobe said at a donor party for the foundation this week.
Letting the landscape go to seed, was never an option.
What was originally called the Litchfield Beautification Committee began organizing in 2006 after the Litchfield Co. announced it would no longer fund the maintenance. The company was selling off its assets, including Waccamaw Management, which actually did the work. It had previously spent $20,000 a year toward the $50,000 maintenance cost. The rest was shared between the Willbrook Road Maintenance District, the Litchfield by the Sea Community Association and the company that owned Litchfield Beach and Golf Resort.
The committee made plans to expand the landscape south to Martin Luther King Road and north to Brookgreen Gardens over the next five years. The budget grew to $100,000 and it expanded its fundraising efforts to businesses and other community associations. It got county accommodations tax funds for expansion and maintenance.
When the Great Recession cut into revenue from the accommodations tax, the committee saw its allocation cut so the county could maintain its tourism marketing effort. It decided to set a goal of becoming self sufficient by 2013. It got its nonprofit status that year and changed its name to the Litchfield Beautification Foundation.
It continued to seek accommodations taxes, even as groups in Pawleys Island, Murrells Inlet and Garden City developed landscape and maintenance programs of their own.
The foundation is now comfortable with the private-public mix that works out to about 80-20, said Ken Dewell, the treasurer and future board president.
The landscape now covers nearly 4 miles of Highway. The annual maintenance cost is $125,600, of which $91,000 comes from the private sector.
The foundation has support from 15 property owners associations, 30 businesses and 155 individuals.
“It is only fitting, as we go forward that this be a private-public partnership. Certainly the private community benefits” through people visiting and shopping, Dewell said. “It also represents a benefit to Georgetown County through the form of sales tax, accommodations tax and, should one move here, property taxes.”
Kathy MacSorley counts herself in the latter group. She first came to the area in 1999, driving through with her husband. She saw the landscaping and said, “Turn around,” she recalled.
She now serves on the foundation board.
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