Horry County Council has wrestled for a year over operations at Myrtle Beach International Airport and is set today to pay $105,000 for a management study.
If approved, the study would look at how well the airport staff juggles recent increases in passengers, airport leases for companies such as AvCraft and day-to-day work on a $200 million terminal expansion.
The airport is a crucial link in the Grand Strand's tourism industry and officials here are predicting a near-record number of travelers this year - about 800,000 boarding passengers. The county is now trying to expand capacity and bolster tourism with a new 14-gate terminal.
A study might result in major changes in how the airport is managed. A similar study last year of the group formerly known as Partners Economic Development Corp. led to a complete overhaul, but a 2003 study of the county Solid Waste Authority resulted in little change.
Airport management and County Council had problems over the past year because of slow job creation by airport lessee AvCraft and ballooning cost and contractor problems for the terminal project.
"It behooves us to make sure we are doing the best for the airport and the taxpayers," Councilman Marion Foxworth said.
A possible contractor for the study, the Louis Berger Group of New Jersey, will make a presentation and the council will take a final vote on funding the study during the regular council meeting in Conway tonight. The council easily passed the study funding in two previous votes, with Councilmen Kevin Hardee and Paul Prince voting against it Nov. 29, according to Council Clerk Pat Hartley.
The county sent out an advertisement in August for qualified contractors that could evaluate airport finances, engineering, legal matters, personnel, property management, organization and management of the new terminal project.
In October, the council gave approval for County Administrator Danny Knight to negotiate a study price tag with Louis Berger Group and now must approve the arrangement with a third and final vote.
Momentum for the study began during County Council's February budget retreat, Foxworth said, when members called a private meeting to discuss airport management but no action resulted.
In June, Councilman Mark Lazarus requested a closed-door discussion on airport management but was blocked by Council Chairwoman Liz Gilland. That same month, Foxworth requested a private council discussion, but Airports Director Bob Kemp blocked any secret mention of his employment by requesting all conversation about him remain public, a request that must be honored under state law.
County spokeswoman Lisa Bourcier spoke for Kemp on Monday, saying the county airport staff believes the airport is run efficiently. Kemp routes any official comment through Bourcier's office.
Public controversy has swirled around the airport though.
AvCraft was given reduced rent and offered a $750,000 reimbursement to set up shop there, but the company missed its job-creation deadline and was threatened by bankruptcy of its European manufacturing facility. The company recently claimed to be on sure financial footing and projected more job creation.
The new terminal project was hit with ballooning costs and is now clouded by a money dispute with a contracted engineering firm. HNTB Architecture Inc. of Washington, D.C., wants an additional $7.85 million to $8.75 million from Horry County, doubling the original fee for terminal design and construction oversight. The council said last month it will fight the increase and take the battle to court if necessary.
County Council Chairwoman Liz Gilland said "there are always improvements that can be made" at the airport but now might not be the best time to put money into an airport study.
"I wasn't particularly in favor of it at this time. There is just so much going on," Gilland said. "The focus is on putting money into the new terminal, and that [$105,000] is money that won't be going there now."
She said the council likely will re-evaluate airport operations after the study but there are no glaring problems with management at this point.
"I sure couldn't put my finger on anything that is a problem of significance," Gilland said.
Councilman John Boyd voted in favor of the study Nov. 29. Although County Council is approving the funding, the money will come from the airport's budget. The Solid Waste Authority and Partners also paid for their studies.
"I think [the studies] were very beneficial, and I think this one will be, too," Boyd said.
After an efficiency study this year and six weeks of workshops, Partners was reborn as the county Regional Economic Development Corp. with new leaders and a new reporting procedure to show Horry County how its annual investments create economic growth in the area.
The group is negotiating a new contract, including annual funding, with Horry County.
A similar study of the Solid Waste Authority had much smaller consequences.
"It was favorable on the Solid Waste Authority's behalf," showing the authority is run "very efficiently," and resulted in the removal of one employee position, Executive Director Ricky Hardee said.
Liz Gilland | County Council chairwoman
Costs of a new airport terminal have been scaled back from $250 million to $200 million over the past year, and now the county faces a dispute over millions of dollars with its engineering contractor.
The airport is a key resource for the area's tourism economy and is predicted to have a record number of passengers this year.
AvCraft, which leases property at the airport, raised political controversy this year over financial performance and missed job-creation deadlines.
What | Horry County Council meeting
Where | County Government and Justice Center, Second Avenue, Conway
When | 6 p.m. today
Why | Council takes a final vote on funding an airport-management study
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