Atlantic Beach, S.C. (WPDE) — There's a calmness when you exit Highway 17 and turn down Atlantic Street.
Suddenly, the hustle and bustle of a mid-summer Grand Strand is in your rear view mirror. Ahead stands trees, a few parked cars, and a breathtaking view of the ocean.
It's no wonder they decided to call this town The Black Pearl.
You pass a childcare center on your left. It was abandoned years ago. Through the window, you can see that the roof has caved in, in front of an old poster that reads, "Smile, God Loves You."
It's a physical representation of the struggles the town has faced since segregation ended decades ago, and the millions of visitors it used to rely on moved south to Myrtle Beach.
Things reached a breaking point in 2013, when the town was rocked by political and financial scandals. The mayor faced criminal charges, the staff fired, and council members announced that the town was more than $800,000 in debt.
"Sit here and going over the same thing over and over again and pretending to be a government," then-councilwoman Carolyn Cole shouted during one particularly heated meeting.
For each question, leaders lacked an answer.
"We just have... seemingly factions that have been somehow divided," then-Mayor Retha Pierce explained to reporters.
Suddenly, the headlines stopped, and largely stayed silent for five years.
Benjamin Quattlebaum sits in his newly repaired office, items still in disarray.
He's a busy man. The phone on his desk rings constantly. A steady stream of people enter and leave his office. Outside, another staff member, Cheryl, acts as gatekeeper.
Quattlebaum was hired as the town's manager in 2015. He's responsible for overseeing one of the smallest budgets in Horry County. The government takes in less than one million dollars per year.
"We're in a position that we're open for business and we're looking for business and investment in this town," he stated firmly.
ABC 15 Investigates first met him in May 2018, a few weeks before the town's biggest event of the year: Bikefest. The thousands of visitors that weekend bring a significant amount of revenue to the community of some 300 people.
Starting with his hiring, Quattlebaum's biggest responsibility has been to clean up the financial mess the former leadership left behind.
He said some of his priorities were urgent, such as complying with state law. Town leaders hadn't completed a state-mandated audit in years. In return, Columbia officials were withholding money that could've gone toward paying off the debt.
It went hand in hand with other actions that he took toward paying off the owed money, including cutting unnecessary spending on services.
"The cleanup contract for Bikefest, it was almost twice the amount of what we pay now," he recalled.
His other example? The very audits the town was struggling to complete. He switched accounting firms to cut the cost of the process.
When describing his efforts, he repeatedly referred to a phrase that recalled the small size of his town: "My first order of business was to get our house in order," he summarized.
ABC 15 Investigates' first order of business was to make sure he was telling the truth.
The team obtained every audit the town had recently completed, from 2014 to 2017, as well as every budget dating back to 2010. They also requested and received the minutes for every town council meeting in 2018.
Working alongside an employee from another municipality who frequently deals with finances and budgets, the team discovered that the town was in a much better financial position than it was in 2013, as Quattlebaum had described.
One thing proved troublesome: the claims that Atlantic Beach was once nearly one million dollars in debt.
Using the audits, which were nonexistent when the claim was made, ABC 15 Investigates could not find any record of debt amounts close to that. The highest total amount the team could account for neared $500,000, including both outstanding debt to companies for services and lawsuit settlements.
Because the town did not complete an audit for the 2013 budget year, the team had no way to double check its calculations and had to rely heavily on the 2014 audit for estimations.
When asked, Quattlebaum said he was told the extra amounts came from a "worst case scenario," including if the town lost every lawsuit it faced at the time, but explained that he was not working for the town at that time.
Lawsuit settlements tended to be the town's biggest source of debt. In the early part of the decade, the town spent nearly 20 percent of its budget on legal-related expenses. It still has several hundred thousand dollars to pay out from those settlements, but most of the money is tied up while lawyers battle over a missed payment from early 2014.
The town's total assets, including cash, have grown consistently in the past few years. It's evidence that the house cleaning has been effective. Quattlebaum referenced the town's newest lawsuit, by the former chief of police, when describing the current financial situation.
"Even if it ruled against us, we would be able to handle the payment and obligations," he said.
It now takes in several hundred thousand dollars more than it spends annually. In 2017, the town recorded a general fund surplus, about $85,000, for the first time since at least 2010. That meant its deficit, once several hundred thousand dollars, had been wiped clean.
The independent municipal employee pointed to the general fund as a problem for the town. They said municipalities should have several pools of money to draw from and shift around for flexibility, but Atlantic Beach still relies almost entirely on its general fund.
The employee also said the lack of available revenue was a problem. Without a bigger tax base, the town only has so much money to invest in infrastructure and services.
Currently, most of the oceanfront and second row lots, some of the most expensive in the town, are empty. A recent auction for eight lots only attracted a bid of 21% of the land's total estimated value, and the seller withdrew.
In addition, many of the buildings in the town, especially on Atlantic Avenue, are abandoned and contribute to the blighted look of the community. It also contributes to the lack of improvement that residents complain about.
"Nothing's really changed in the last five years," Ron Stalvey said. "I think we're kind of stagnant, and I think that's a shame because there's lots of positive things happening along the Grand Strand, and Atlantic Beach is being left behind."
Quattlebaum said leaders were attempting to work with the owners of those properties, but were considering legal action.
Stalvey echoed another overwhelming sense in Atlantic Beach that just a little bit of development, especially commercial, like a hotel, would spur the town's economy.
"This thing could turn around on a five year plan. It could be the most sought after properties along the Grand Strand," he insisted.
Politically, the town is also in a better place, at least in public. At town meetings, infighting and bickering have been replaced by talk of events and improvements.
The town's mayor, Jake Evans, told ABC 15 Investigates that the people responsible for most of the problems were no longer in positions of power.
Except for that one in-person conversation after our team cornered him following the November 2018 town meeting, Evans repeatedly refused to return our phone calls and requests for an interview for this story.
ABC 15 investigates also attempted to contact Retha Pierce, the town's former mayor, and Carolyn Cole, a former councilwoman, for interviews, but was unsuccessful.
So, where does the town go from here? Quattlebaum said he had hopes for its future, and admitted the town needed to market itself more widely.
"We are open for business," he said.