Economy Tied to New Myrtle Beach Terminal

The $200 million terminal plan would double the number of airplane gates and nearly triple the square footage of the existing facility, meaning a wider choice of flights.

From the air, the development footprint of the proposed terminal at Myrtle Beach International Airport is striking for its size.

The outline of the T-shaped facility dwarfs the cramped, square building across the tarmac that now serves as the airport's terminal and entry point for about 750,000 passengers each year.

The $200 million terminal plan would double the number of airplane gates and nearly triple the square footage of the existing facility, meaning a wider choice of flights.

But despite the promised improvements, it also is the least-expensive plan available to Horry County, and the cost-cutting has some worried - an international customs area won't be included and those in the tourism industry say that could hurt their ability to grow into European and Canadian markets.

All agree that improvements at the airport are key to the future of the local economy. Improved air services make the Grand Strand a more attractive place to spend a vacation, to locate a business and to buy a home, said Gary Loftus, director of Coastal Carolina University's Clay Brittain Jr. Center for Resort Tourism.

"The terminal is really critical if we want to diversify our economy," Loftus said. "In addition, we have to serve the people who are living here and moving here."

After a bottoming out following the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, many airports are experiencing a resurgence in air traffic to record levels and are looking to add new terminals and expansions, said Steve Van Beek, executive vice president for policy at the advocacy group Airports Council International North America.

Myrtle Beach International Airport's traffic grew at more than twice the national average from 2003 to 2004, and it, too, is trying to keep up with the rising tide in air travel and the boom in airport expansion.

"Now, it is almost a service risk for airports not to go forward with some terminal development," Van Beek said.

More than 100 communities across the country are in talks with airlines about increased service, and the main lure to carriers is low fees, the quality of terminal facilities and the power of the local aviation market, he said.

Areas also must be mindful of other factors, such as traffic congestion, that can sour travelers' experiences and limit growth even with a new airport facility, he said.

"Myrtle Beach is a discretionary travel place. ... Travelers have to have a good travel experience for them to come back," Van Beek said. "No terminal is going to do anything if the community is not a desirable place to fly."

Horry County's faith that a new 14-gate terminal will serve a burgeoning tourism industry and energize commerce is underscored by how it plans to pay for the facility.

Although airlines will face increased fees to fund many of the new terminals now planned in cities across the U.S., the Myrtle Beach terminal will be funded largely through public money, with at least $70 million coming from county borrowing.

The dependence on public financing caused the county to make some tough decisions on which features would be included in the terminal project.

Terminal plans do not include a customs facility for international passengers, a second taxiway and an improved internal communications system that would allow airlines to easily trade ticket counters and gates.

The county also will forgo ownership of the lighting system and fuel farm, meaning less control over fuel prices at the airport.

Some say scaling back the terminal could affect the airport's ability to draw tourists.

The new terminal will enable the area to get more direct flights and tap golf markets abroad, but a single taxiway might affect the experience of visitors, said Mickey McCamish, president of Myrtle Beach Golf Holiday.

If the taxiway is shut down for maintenance or an accident, it could mean foreign tourists getting stuck on the runway, he said.

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