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."
Barnard said he worries voting down the extra money could hurt federal funding for various projects, including a plan to build a highway to the South Strand, which Barnard has championed.
If the airport project dies, the county will have to turn down $43 million in funding promised by the Federal Aviation Administration in January.
Sen. Graham played a crucial part in getting that money.
He refused comment on the terminal uncertainty until he visits Myrtle Beach this week and discusses the project's future with the county, his spokesman Kevin Bishop said.
"We don't want to jeopardize that relationship by any means," said County Councilman Mark Lazarus, who also sat on the council ad hoc terminal committee with Gilland and Barnard.
Lazarus said he's not sure how he will vote July 18, and will give staff the next couple weeks to consider options.
Lazarus has said expanding the existing terminal at the airport is one alternative.
"We had a business model that was built and our business model has changed," he said.
Rooting for expansion
As the council mulls its decision, the tourism industry is hoping the outcome will be a new terminal. "The ability to expand is critical to golf tourism and to our tourism industry in general," said Mickey McCamish, president of Myrtle Beach Golf Holiday.
Business at the airport dropped this year after Hooters Air shuttered its regular air service and others cut back. That's caused some to question the need for a new terminal.
McCamish and the Myrtle Beach Area Chamber of Commerce have worked to bolster air service at the airport and say the effort is paying off with new Spirit Airlines service to Boston. Efforts are also under way to attract more business from other airlines.
"While it doesn't look very positive right now ... the real key is to increase the number of seats coming in here," McCamish said. "You have to believe that air service will be returning."
Horry County has committed $12.3 million so far to the terminal project.
Where it came from
Airport fees | $2,517,657
FAA grants | $9,782,809
Clearing land and soil | $2,157,070
Construction manager | $1,590,881
Design team | $6,302,805
Project management task orders | $1,100,000
Grant service fees | $253,000
Public awareness program | $150,000
Travel | $30,000
Other, including equipment, studies and piping | $716,705
2000 | Horry County and Myrtle Beach councils agree to move the terminal across the runway. Original cost estimate: $185 million
2003 | Airport Director Bob Kemp updates the city and county councils on the 10-year master plan, which calls for a new terminal building with up to 14 gates, to be complete by 2007.
May 2005 | Skanska USA Building Inc., which had been contracted to construct the terminal, said increasing costs for materials had ballooned to $253 million. The county asked its architects to redesign and cut costs.
July 2005 | County approves a scaled-down $200 million version of the project.
January| The county fires HNTB Architecture of Washington, D.C. over an additional $7.85 million to $8.75 million fee the company said it was owed.
May | Kemp says Horry County won't get a guaranteed price tag on its new terminal project until later this year.
Monday | The new design company said work has "just started." To get finished designs, County Council must pay an additional $6.2 million.
July 18 | Horry County Council will meet to decide whether to spend the money and proceed with the project.
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