Economy Tied to New Myrtle Beach Terminal

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.

"If you have been on an international flight and you have been in the air for a number of hours ... delays are not appreciated, and they are not understood at this point," McCamish said. "I think the second taxiway it is very important."

The terminal could go further than growing golf and tourism business.

Pat Dowling, spokesman for Burroughs & Chapin Co. Inc., said the expansion could attract new kinds of businesses to the area, creating an economic base that goes beyond dependence on vacationers.

"We are trying to build the next level of public and private infrastructure," Dowling said. "The ability to get in and out of Myrtle Beach and travel elsewhere around the region and the nation in a day is important."

Businesses and homeowners look to that type of convenience when deciding where to locate, he said.

"We don't need to build a palace, but we can't be shortsighted in building for the future," Dowling said.

Rep. Tracy Edge, R-North Myrtle Beach, has said the elimination of a customs facility is contrary to the state's new push to attract international visitors to the coast and that the county's decision could damage its chances at state funding in the future.

Hooters Air, a locally owned airline, has been expanding service across the U.S. and is looking to markets abroad, but the company said that could be difficult in a terminal that has no facility to process those visitors.

Foreign tourists would be an asset to the local economy because they typically stay longer and spend more money, said Chad Prosser, director of the state Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism.

"I understand there are some real cost constraints and the council must deal with that, but when planning for the future, I would see that customs facility as something critical to have," Prosser said.

The $200 million terminal plan was chosen by Horry County Council last month after it reviewed several more expensive versions, ranging from $209 million to $250 million.

The cost, which won't be final until more design work is completed, would be a huge expenditure for the county - its total annual operating budget is $275 million.

The plan has critics on the council.

Councilman Harold Worley, who voted against it, said the county does not have the money to finish such a large-scale terminal and could be forced into raising property taxes to cover the cost.

"We could take $100 million and remodel and expand our existing terminal," Worley said. "It would be one of the finest terminals in the East Coast period."

Despite some concern, the stripped-down plan provides significant improvements to the current facility, including an increase in space from 128,000 to 377,000 square feet, seven new gates for airplanes, and up to 723 new parking spaces.

The council said more could be added, including the customs area, if more money becomes available in the future.

For travelers, the new terminal could mean a more convenient flying experience, including more direct flights, additional security screening gates, more retail shops and improved flow of vehicle traffic outside.

The balance between cost and amenities has stirred county anxiety, but it is unlikely airlines will be asked to close that gap.

Officials plan to keep airline fees to less than $10 per passenger, an increase of $2.50 from the current fee, according to information supplied by Airport Director Bob Kemp.

"We are trying real hard to bring in airlines and increased fees would make that more difficult," Councilman Marion Foxworth said.

The county already has tapped airport fees and further increases are unlikely, he said.

The airport has saved $23 million for the terminal and estimates it will have another $40 million from leases and fees.

That public-funding method might be more "forward-looking" because increased fees are almost invariably passed on to consumers and could make the new terminal less attractive to future business, Van Beek said.

"There is no doubt that the lower cost per enplanement, the greater the likelihood that an air carrier is going to serve it," Van Beek said.

US Airways, a tenant at the airport, released a statement saying that "in today's economic environment, we are paying close attention to all of the costs of doing business, including airport fees" and that it will continue to have discussions with the county about the new terminal.

At the same time, the tourism industry is watching the county's plans with concern.

Many say the terminal and expanded air service are closely tied to the industry's future.

"Let's start the shovels. We need to move ahead with that terminal," McCamish said.

About 60 percent of golfers fly to the Grand Strand, and Golf Holiday hopes to increase that number by expanding air service across the country and abroad.