Stephen Murray’s family likes to drive the Beaufort area hunting for new playgrounds to explore.
Finding an undiscovered spot can be tricky for someone like Murray, who grew up in Beaufort riding his bike from Mossy Oaks to Pigeon Point and knows its nooks. But sometimes, he and his wife, Melissa, cast about for something new for their twin daughters to try in northern Beaufort County, from Habersham to Pigeon Point Park.
With a lack of traditional commercial options, getting outside is how Beaufort plays. Pigeon Point Park, beaches at Hunting Island State Park and Port Royal’s Sands Beach and farmers market are staples of family outings.
“We live in a natural wonderland,” said Murray, a Beaufort business owner and city councilman. “That’s parks and crabbing docks and beaches and access to the water and Spanish Moss Trail. I think we do have other things to do that we often overlook.”
But heading outside isn’t always possible in the heat of a mid-summer day or the middle of a thunderstorm.
Difficulty finding activities for families with young children is a common lament raised when new businesses move in and others close. Concerns were raised again on social media this week with news of plans for a new Publix grocery store, which would require demolishing the Beaufort Plaza movie theater, the only of its kind in the area.
Highway 21 Drive-In persists while offering an outdoor experience on two screens, and USC Beaufort for the Arts holds regular movie screenings.
The Plaza theater remains open, as the plans are in the city regulatory process, but the thought of it going away has raised alarm bells. An online petition started months ago in support of the theater has more than 1,700 signatures.
Theater owner Paul Trask declined to comment in recent months on plans for the redevelopment of Beaufort Plaza, citing a nondisclosure agreement. Attempts to reach him Tuesday were unsuccessful, and in an email Thursday, he asked a reporter not to contact him again.
Trask submitted plans to demolish the theater and build a Publix for a city planning staff review at the end of July. The plans call for knocking down the theater, a car shop and adjacent shops to allow for the 48,000 square-foot supermarket. Remaining storefronts would be renovated, according to separate plans submitted to the city.
Murray, who is chairman of a county economic development panel and owner of a Kazoo factory and custom shirt business, said the news underscores a need for higher-wage jobs in the area to help support local businesses — that if the theater was a viable business, the conversation would probably be different.
“When you look at the per capita income that has diminished over the last few years, it points to families that don’t have a lot of extra money for recreational activities,” Murray said. “I think that’s a reason we have trouble sustaining these types of private sector amenities for people.”
Recent efforts have aimed at engaging children and families in northern Beaufort County, where the military, schools, hospitality and retail industries are among the primary employers.
A volunteer task force led an effort that reopened the gym at Charles Lind Brown Center to dozens of downtown Beaufort children for regular activities. Port Royal has maintained a covered skate park, added a nearby playground in Naval Heritage Park and overhauled Live Oak Park adjacent to Port Royal Elementary School, including new playground equipment and artificial turf.
GiggleBox, a Shell Point businesses offering indoor play and activity areas for children, opened in 2016 but closed the following summer. In a social media post, the owners cited difficulties after losing personal property during Hurricane Matthew while acknowledging the business “filled an important need for our community.”
Randy Roberts, of Love House Ministries, says families appreciate the nonprofit organization’s Community Bowling Center on Ribaut Road for its affordability and as a safe place for children to hang out. The organization renovated the building last year to add a laser tag arena in an effort to draw a younger crowd.
“It can be a challenge, because society often wants something but they may not necessarily appreciate the expense that it takes to be able to maintain the entertainment in the area,” Roberts said. “Without the community supporting it, it can make it extremely difficult.”
Roberts offered an example of a monthly power bill in the thousands for the bowling and laser tag center. Raising prices would be easy, he said, but a main draw is the low cost to play.
Having rates too low can make staffing a challenge.
And Mother Nature in the Lowcountry, which might at times drive families indoors, is a fierce competitor to family-oriented businesses when the weather is nice, Roberts added.
“You can’t complain about it, that’s one of the draws that brought you to Beaufort,” Roberts said. “It’s that beautiful double-edged sword.”