Myrtle Beach Airport Architects, Horry County Lock Horns on Cash

A deadlocked contract dispute between Horry County and aviation architects could mean delays and increased costs for the planned terminal at Myrtle Beach International Airport.

HNTB Architecture Inc. of Washington, D.C., wants an additional $7.85 million to $8.75 million from Horry County - double the original fee - for terminal design and construction oversight, according to County Attorney John Weaver.

County Council members said Tuesday they won't bend to the demand and will hold the firm to the $7.9 million contract written last year.

"I think it is a binding and enforceable contract," Weaver said.

Months of negotiations failed to resolve the dispute, which is part of a rocky effort to expand the airport for tourism and future development. Cost has been the biggest issue for the 14-gate terminal, which is scheduled to open in 2008. Despite the absence of a firm estimate, the county's best guesses put the project at more than $200 million.

HNTB was hired to create designs that could be used to cement a total terminal cost with construction contractors. The company refused to comment on the dispute Wednesday and referred all questions to the county.

Without a guaranteed price tag, the total cost of building a terminal is likely to continue climbing, partly because construction materials are becoming more expensive.

Several council members said Tuesday that the architecture firm may have low-balled the price of its services and now is increasing that fee because the overall cost of the terminal grew during the past year.

"They have us over a barrel and want more money," Councilman Howard Barnard said.

Estimates on total costs ballooned to $253 million before the council cut features in July, such as a second taxiway. That reduced the estimated cost to $200 million.

Airport Director Bob Kemp said HNTB did do extra work and the county offered about an additional $1 million, but the offer was not accepted.

Architecture firms have left other major projects midstream, including work in Atlanta, Kemp said.

In August, officials at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport fired the design team contracted for an expansion, leaving the city with $34 million in plans it may never use, according to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Horry County has two options. It could agree to pay HNTB $6.5 million for much less work than it originally envisioned. That payment would cover 65 percent of the design work - the benchmark needed to get a firm commitment on a terminal cost from contractors - but would also mean the county loses the ability to enforce the original contract with HNTB, Weaver said.

County Council voted 11-0, with Kevin Hardee absent, for a second option: pressing HNTB to stick to its $7.9 million contract. The risk is that HNTB could leave the project, and the county would lose time hiring a new design team.

"If you want to see it through, you are talking about somewhere in the range of $15 million for their architectural services," Weaver said.

Hiring a new architecture firm would not save money and would probably cost the county more, Weaver said.

"There is not going to be any pot of gold at the end of the rainbow where we are going to save $3, $4 or $5 million," he said.

Councilman Bob Grabowski, a business owner, said he has mistakenly underestimated the costs of projects in his business dealings but acted differently than HNTB.

"I did the job. I didn't make any money, but I did the job," Grabowski said. "I stood by my word, and I didn't even have a written contract with the guy."

What's next

HNTB Architecture Inc. of Washington and Myrtle Beach International Airport staff are meeting at 8:30 a.m. today at the airport.

Myrtle Beach Sun News

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