After any wintertime festival on Folly Beach, you can count on a few days of Facebook vitriol to follow. On an island that, to most people, is viewed as a paradise — a sliver of beach and sunshine 20 minutes from the best city in the world — there's a very vocal contingent of residents who refuse to simply be happy with their pretty-damn-good lot in life.
Most of the anger is vented online, and in the case of Folly Beach, that place used to be the Follitics Facebook page. During the debate over the alcohol ban a couple of years ago, the tea grew so bitter that the factions split into their own camps, with the conservative types leaving the original Follitics forum to start a new page, FollyBeachPolitics. There was even a Follitics2 page that sprung up as a failed middle-ground alternative.
So today, when someone has a contentious opinion, like, "We should stop the street festivals on Folly Beach during the winter," they post it to their group of relative like-minds. Someone with a foot in both pools inevitably carries the debate to the other page, only to be attacked like a cat in a cage full of wild dogs. And nobody gets anywhere, even when those that care enough to show up at a city council meeting spend their three minutes of public comment time yelling at the deaf ears.
This year's FollyGras festival, culminating on Sat. Feb. 21, was no exception. I missed it, and with good reason. I was sitting inside LAX experiencing 48 hours of standby hell, while my friends and neighbors enjoyed live music, a small parade, and a day of gathering on Center Street.
I was sad to be away, because, let me be clear, I love the festivals on Folly Beach. They're a chance to get out of the house during the short days of winter and catch up with friends. And not long ago, I was a musician performing at nearly every event. Since retiring my guitar, I've served the Taste of Folly Festival emcee, signed my books at Sea and Sand, run sound for Maurice Williams and the Zodiacs at Follypalooza, and enjoyed attending as a patron and proud resident, happy to support the causes that these festivals support, from funding cancer treatments to maintaining public parks on the island.
But any time you put a few thousand people together to have fun, somebody is going to abuse it. And at FollyGras, a Mardi Gras-themed event, that fun will almost inevitably involve somebody yelling "Show us your tits" and generally being a drunken ass. But these folks are a small minority and no more annoying than the people that show up only to take pictures of the worst offenders they can find and post the pics to Facebook as an example of why we should cancel festivals on Folly.
Strip away the community-building aspect, or the fact that festivals are simply a good time, and look just at the numbers. According to Folly Beach Director of Finance Lee Gessner, the bars and restaurants on Folly Beach contributed $517,000 in hospitality taxes to the city's coffers in 2014. Many business owners claim that without the winter festivals, they wouldn't be able to keep their doors open for nearly six months of the year, costing the island both direct revenue and jobs.
At the Drop-In Deli on Center Street, co-owner Lewis Dodson claims that an average February Saturday night brings in about $900-$1,000 in sales. On this year's FollyGras Saturday, he says they sold about $6,000 worth of food and alcohol, and the numbers are similar for Follypalooza, the Christmas Parade, and Taste of Folly. One Saturday festival essentially pays the month's rent, justifying staying open the other 30 nights of the month, many at a loss.
But the truth is, nothing really happened at FollyGras — at least beyond what occurs on any given Saturday on Folly Beach, Isle of Palms, or downtown Charleston. When The Post and Courier published a June 2 front-page article with the headline "Does FollyGras foster a 'drunk beach' image?," that was a huge win for the festival's dozen-or-so, very vocal opponents. That article took their inevitable complaints and propelled them to the level that columns like this need to be written to counter the undeserved attention.
Some festival opponents want to claim that the events — or the continued perception of Folly as a boozer's utopia — are negatively affecting property values. Here's the bottom line: a disappearing beach is what's keeping property values down on Folly Beach, and we're going to need all the money we can find to continue fighting back against the natural erosion that Charleston's shipping industry has grossly exacerbated via the jetties. As a homeowner on Folly Beach, I'm worried about our quickly eroding island. Without a hole blown in the jetties, we're going to need a constant influx of money to remain "Folly Beach" instead of becoming simply "Folly Island" (or "Folly Fortress," surrounded by rocks and hostile residents).
Apart from maintaining a reasonable quality of life (yes, the pre-recorded club music that pours out of the Center Street/Ashley Avenue intersection is seriously obnoxious, but it has nothing to do with festivals or live music), government actions that harm businesses on Folly are foolishly shortsighted. If we don't encourage people to come here — year-round — we are shooting ourselves in the foot.
Is Bourbon Street an embarrassment to our country? Arguably so. Could New Orleans have rebuilt itself after Hurricane Katrina without the economic boost it receives every night from Bourbon Street? Absolutely not.
Sometimes you have to give a little. And the "problems" we face with festivals on Folly Beach are so minor that it's ridiculous this conversation is even occurring. Reading Follitics and FollyBeachPolitics makes my stomach churn, so I've moved my attention to the new I Love Folly Beach Facebook group, where my neighbors post pictures of sunrise at the Washout, announce impromptu yoga sessions, and request — and find — help when a neighbor is in need. That's the island I want to live on.
Let's focus on improving our community with what we can each give to each other rather than trying to take away the aspects of the island that our neighbors cherish and enjoy.
A town hall meeting to discuss street festivals on Folly Beach is scheduled for 7 p.m. on Thurs. June 11 at Folly Beach City Council Chambers at 21 Center Street.