Conway, South Carolina
Over the last decade, gateway communities have realized that protecting and restoring their local river encourages recreation, connects the community to the river and creates an economic engine for the region. To illustrate the benefits communities have discovered by protecting and restoring local rivers, American Rivers developed a series of case studies highlighting gateway communities and how they have benefited from local river and land conservation.
Over the past 10 years, the City of Conway, South Carolina, along with area partners, have made the Waccamaw River a recreational and economic attraction, moving it out of the shadow of nearby Myrtle Beach and into the spotlight across the region. By protecting riverside tracts of land and creating an ideal setting for people to enjoy the river’s natural beauty, tourism to Conway and the Waccamaw River has flourished.
One of the oldest cities in South Carolina, Conway (originally known as Kingston) was established in 1732, part of the original Colonial Frontier due to its distance from the larger city of Charles Town. From the beginning, Conway and surrounding Horry County have been closely connected to the Waccamaw River, a critical outpost on the route to the nearby Winyah Bay.
More than 20,000 residents call Conway home, with a small-town, family atmosphere, and a deep connection to the rich local history. But until recently, Conway and the Waccamaw River have lived in the shadows of nearby Myrtle Beach.
With Conway’s investment in the local river along with various collaborative efforts across Horry County, there has been a tremendous push to reconnect the community and local visitors with the city’s recreational gem. One of the greatest blackwater rivers in the Southeast, the Waccamaw is home to rare, threatened, and endangered species of plants and diverse wildlife. The vibrant community of Conway benefits from the river, with tremendous recreation opportunities and a budding tourism economy.
“The City of Conway prides itself on its history, its beauty, and its blackwater river, the Waccamaw. We’re only a few miles from the beach, but we are not the beach. Few other cities anywhere can boast about a prettier, more peaceful river,” Adam Emrick, Planning Director City of Conway.
To preserve the history and beauty of the Waccamaw River, stakeholders identified the need to protect it and its unique past. Along with a coalition of local, state, and national organizations, leaders in the City of Conway, along with Horry and Georgetown counties, recognized the need to protect the river and surrounding lands. The first step in securing those protections was reconnecting people to the river through family-friendly recreational opportunities. The coalition worked to enhance recreational opportunities by creating the Waccamaw River Blue Trail through new boat launches, interpretative signs, and a waterproof paddling map.
Local organizations and governments have mapped the highest priority land to guide protection efforts along the river. Guided by solid data, critical tracts of land have been protected, connecting the community to features, such as the National Wildlife Refuge, new access points, and maintain habitat for black bear, swallow-tailed kite, and more.
To date, the coalition protected more than 5,000 acres of priority riverside lands through acquisition, conservation easements, and ordinances, adding to the nearly 50,000 acres protected across Horry County. They have also secured $3.5 million in federal funding to support land protection, not including recent plans to expand the nearby Waccamaw National Wildlife Refuge and connecting it by both land and water trails to the City of Conway.
Transformation to a Popular Outdoor Recreation Destination
Linking river protection efforts with opportunities to promote and enhance recreation and history along the Waccamaw are critical. Healthy rivers like the Waccamaw have positive benefits for community livability and the local economy, as well as promoting a sense of history and place. The City of Conway, as well as Horry and Georgetown Counties, are committed to the conservation and recreation ethic as they work with local businesses, including restaurants, outfitters, and shops, to drive visitors to the river.
“Because the Waccamaw River is part of a wide floodplain, it is difficult to see through the dense trees. Creating a branding and signage plan for Horry County boat landings will be one of next initiatives that the Horry County Parks and Open Space Board pursues to improve recognition of local blueways like the Waccamaw River Blue Trail,” Leigh Kane, Community Development Planner in Horry County.
Over the last five years, recreation-based tourism has improved along the Waccamaw River and within surrounding communities. Conway, and nearby Horry and Georgetown Counties, have marketed the various recreational opportunities along the Waccamaw River through the local Chambers of Commerce and tourism outreach. Improvements to existing access points, as well as developing new ones, have provided expanded opportunities for residents and visitors to the area to get out and enjoy the river. In addition to beach-related activities, local recreation outfitters in both Conway and nearby communities including Myrtle Beach and Georgetown now promote river tours and kayak trips along the Waccamaw.
“Conway has worked hard to make sure the river remains as it is, conserving hundreds of acres of pristine riverfront. These efforts have created countless opportunities, including kayaking and canoeing, fishing and paddleboarding. The Waccamaw River is the heart of Conway,” Adam Emrick.
In April 2016, Georgetown County hosted the 2016 Bassmaster Elite Series tournament, one of the premier freshwater fishing tournament events in the world. The competition featured five area rivers, including the Waccamaw. Tournaments like these have provided Georgetown and Horry County with significant economic growth, joining previous host cities that saw an economic influx of more than $2 million from the event. Coastal Carolina University estimates total tourism along the river and at the beach in both Georgetown and Horry counties accounts for a $7 billion economic impact, with $2.2 billion in labor and 83,000 jobs.
All of these efforts — conservation, recreation, history, and resource promotion — build support for river recreation in the region and promote conservation along the Waccamaw. Partnerships with local businesses and the Chamber of Commerce creates a larger and more diverse constituency that recognizes the economic, recreation, and conservation values a healthy Waccamaw River provides the community.