Horry County Council members will decide this month whether to spend another $6.2 million to continue the struggling airport terminal project or abandon the plan, a decision that could hamper the tourism industry's efforts to draw more air travelers and endanger future federal funding for projects such as Interstate 73.
After five years of work, the money set aside to prepare the terminal for construction is spent and the county is left with design plans that are far from complete.
There will be consequences to walking away. The tourism industry could be stunted without a new 14-gate terminal, supporters say.
It would also be a slap in the face of lawmakers who helped get terminal project funding, such as U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, and could damage the county's chance of getting crucial federal money for other projects.
"If we throw $43 million back in the face of the people in Washington, we won't ever get money for a terminal here again," said County Council Chairwoman Liz Gilland, a supporter of the project.
But planning the terminal has been plagued with set-backs and escalating costs that ultimately ate up $12.3 million.
In late 2004, the price of steel and concrete surged, causing terminal estimates to shoot to $253 million -- it was expected to cost $185 million.
Airport management asked the contracted design team, HNTB Architecture Inc., to redesign the terminal to cut down the costs.
"The problem was every time we would sit down with [Airport Director Bob] Kemp, we'd get changes" in the plans, said Don Corinna, who was terminal project manager with Parsons Brinckerhoff Inc. from 2001 to July 2005. He was forced off the project by his company last summer due, he said, mainly to clashes with Kemp. Kemp was not available for comment.
After the redesign request, HNTB asked for more money for the extra work.
Corinna said the county should have paid the extra money, which would have kept the project on schedule and saved money in the end.
Meanwhile, the summer 2005 deadline for finished design plans passed and, after nearly a year of wrangling over money, HNTB was removed from the project in January.
Months passed -- each increasing the cost by about $1.8 million -- before the county hired a new design team: Gresham, Smith and Partners.
The company began a comprehensive redesign to try to cut terminal project costs.
David King, division vice president of Gresham, Smith and Partners, summed up the company's progress during a presentation Monday: "We've just started. By no means is this a finished presentation."
Gresham will be paid $1.2 million for the initial work. To get the finished product, County Council will have to pay another $6.2 million.
Delays in the council
Chairwoman Gilland blames County Council for most of the delays, saying the board has been divided and often has second-guessed the effort.
For the future, she takes an optimistic view. If council approves the extra spending, the county will have finished terminal designs in December and will have leverage for state and federal funding.
"It seems like going forward is very good," she said. "If we are not agreeing to operate as a team ... people are not going to give [needed funding]. It falls back to council."
Howard Barnard was a member of the council ad hoc terminal committee and a supporter who's worked closely with the project. He said he's still not sure how he will vote.
"As you look to be a visionary in the county, we need a new terminal. I just don't see any long-range planning that does not include a terminal," Barnard said. Still, the escalating cost and delays are troubling, he said.
"Back they come just requesting more and more money and we are no closer to knowing what that [fixed terminal] price is," Barnard said. "To be honest, I don't know where I am [going to vote]. All along, I've said I want to see a $200 million terminal."
There is still no final cost estimate for the 14-gate terminal, despite months of work by contractors, and Horry County is facing a $60 million to $108 million funding gap.
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