In one of my favorite films, Out Cold, the small town of Bull Mountain, Alaska struggles with the arrival of a giant chain ski resort which promises to replace annual snowboarding-and-beer chugging races with fancy uniforms and tourist dollars. The mountain was owned by "Papa Muntz" who loved to ski while drinking with his backside exposed ... until he died doing exactly that. His mantra left Bull Mountain a purpose: "Don't go a-changin'."
Muntz's final words came to mind as I ruminated on a relatively new Folly Beach ordinance regulating big national companies that could threaten to rob the island of its charm.
Passed in December, local ordinance 11-18 restricts "Formula Businesses." The somewhat nuanced Folly ordinance technically allows chain business to set up on Folly, provided that they conform to rules seeking to preserve the unique nature and character of the community. The stipulations could have the effect of nudging national companies toward changes like the abandonment of standard uniforms, decoration, architecture, etc.
The idea was introduced to the city by Lowcountry Local First. Personally, I applaud the measure from a selfish standpoint. Like most people who live on or visit Folly regularly, it is the island's intangible character that makes it so appealing. The idea of a Starbucks or Captain D's on Center Street is nauseating. However, I found something unsettling about an ordinance that is based on something as undefinable as Folly's "funkiness."
I mean, can you bottle Jim Morrison's rebellious sexuality and break it down into measurable terms? Of course not. You can only listen to Waiting for the Sun and hope the person sitting next to you associates you with the Morrison mystique.
Folly Beach's funkiness is equally impossible to distill.
Still, I have to credit Lowcountry Local First. They've identified the issue and are working to protect unique communities like Folly Beach, Avondale, Park Circle, and others. If you want to be unwelcomed on Folly, just campaign for a Papa John's to take Woody's spot. "Buy local" is an easy position to defend. The legislative specifics are where an actual debate happens though, and that is what piqued my interest.
The ordinance defines a "formula business" and then inserts one line and states that one purpose of the "non-residential" district is to "preserve the unique character" of Folly Beach.
I love the idea. I do. But what does it mean? Even if you managed the absurd task of defining Folly's unique character, you have to ask: What role does the government have in determining it? The issue isn't whether we want to protect Folly's character. The issue is whether we want a government to start legislating concepts that are impossible to grasp. You may as well pass an ordinance stating only "good music" can be played on the island. This is great too, if the people in local government are diehard followers of your Spotify playlists.
The liberal-versus-conservative debate over the role of government is well-worn ground. It's a question of the purpose of democracy. While you're probably not overcome with emotion over the Town of Folly Beach restricting chain businesses, you might be more interested when protecting Folly's unique character suddenly means a restriction on the plants you can grow in your yard.
This is the problem with legislation that is based on intangible, subjective ideas of good and bad. What argument can you make when you've already allowed the government to legislate what is funky? Should we look forward to Engelbert Humperdinck Wednesdays?
At the same time, one could argue that the ambiguity in the ordinance will naturally evolve and be reflected by the council members elected by local residents, ensuring an island the people want ... even if it becomes a miniature Myrtle Beach. I would have to hope that this is a post-apocalyptic Folly, but who knows.
(It is time to put the top on this literary sandwich and come back to Bull Mountain, Alaska. I won't ruin the end of Out Cold, because I trust you will watch the film.)
I've lived on Folly, and if you ask me, I like the idea of joining a mob of local beachgoers running through a McDonald's grand opening on Center Street with my shorts at half mast, defiling the executives on hand with our unique local character. (Seriously, just watch Out Cold).
In the meantime, Folly Beach: Don't go a-changin' ... whatever that means.
Ali was born in Greenville, S.C. but grew up in High Point, N.C. where he studied English/Writing at High Point University. He has called Charleston home since 2006 and wants to believe Bigfoot is real.