The Charleston County Aviation Authority said Thursday it will open a new 1,200-space parking garage at the airport on Sunday, even though the builder said the authority still owes it $6 million in construction payments.
The three-story facility adds much-needed parking capacity just in time to relieve the crush of holiday travel, but friction over the garage's construction contract is heating up.
The aviation authority said that parts of the facility are not up to contract specifications and that it was supposed to be completed almost 11 weeks ago.
The lead contractor's parent company, The Beach Co., said airport management is to blame for the delay, is wrongly withholding $4.5 million of its $28.4 million contract and has refused to pay $1.5 million for delays and for additional work and materials.
After months of negotiations with authority officials, Beach made its case Thursday to the group's board of directors.
"We've been treated as second-class citizens from the start of the project," said John Darby, Beach's president and chief executive. "It's the worst thing we've ever been involved in."
Darby said the bickering with the aviation authority has caused huge "collateral damage" to the morale and reputation of his 60-year-old company, including subsidiary Gulfstream Construction Co. Inc., the branch of the company that was contracted to build the garage. Employees have resigned because of the project and relations with some subcontractors and other clients have become strained, Darby said.
The authority board did not discuss the project or Darby's points publicly, but shortly after the meeting, board chairman David Jennings led reporters on a tour of the garage. Jennings pointed out details that he said were not up to contract, including a crack in the top deck, a puddle of water on one of the exit ramps and slippery metal plates between squares of concrete. The authority recently spent $4,000 on rubber mats to cover the metal, Jennings said.
"We haven't even opened this thing and we already have cracks," he said. "The public certainly won't notice a lot of these issues, but we're anxious to get everything that we pay for."
Jennings confirmed that the authority is withholding payments and said lawyers for both parties eventually will sort out "who pays for what."
The project has been contentious from the start, when Gulfstream's bid came in $3 million higher than the authority expected. An important building permit still was not in hand on the March 3, 2004, start date, and groundbreaking was delayed 42 days. Airport officials said the builder had a "legitimate" point about the permit but maintained that it could have started other work during that time.
The airport ordered Beach workers off the site for 19 days in January and February when one of four separate tests showed that some concrete piling was not strong enough. Beach disputed the results but eventually removed 17 columns. During the hiatus, 100 workers left the job and Beach spent about $24,000 on idle rented equipment, according to Darby.
In March, the aviation authority revoked a $2.25 million portion of the contract that called for a rain cover between the terminal and the new garage.
"We could not even get them to talk to us," Jim Woods, president of Gulfstream, told the board. "We've basically been told to 'Sit down, shut up and go sit in the corner; we'll pay you when we feel like it.'"
Charlie Way, Beach chairman and a former state secretary of commerce, also attended the meeting Thursday. As Woods detailed what he called an unwillingness to negotiate by the authority, Way looked at the floor and shook his head.
Jennings said that the authority would file "whatever paperwork is required" to declare the facility substantially complete but that it has no immediate plans to turn over the money it is still withholding from Beach.
Nearly eight years have passed since the Biloxi-Gulfport Regional Airport Authority members and airport executives started talks about the construction of a three-story parking garage.
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