Funding Grounds New Myrtle Beach Air Terminal

The county called timeout Tuesday on its plan to build a new terminal at the Myrtle Beach International Airport due to frustration over costs and funding.

There is still no final cost estimate for the 14-gate terminal, despite months of work by contractors, and Horry County is facing a $60 million to $108 million funding gap.

Skanska USA Building Inc., which has been contracted to construct the terminal, estimated Tuesday that the cost has ballooned to $253 million because of increasing costs for construction materials - a price well beyond the $180 million goal set by County Council. So far the council has committed $12 million for land clearing and planning the construction.

County staff met with contractors Tuesday morning and made the decision to stop any more spending on the project until it has a guaranteed price from the project manager and more money, County Councilman Mark Lazarus said.

The new terminal is needed to relieve crowding at the Myrtle Beach International Airport, and many say it is critical to expand the area's tourism industry in the future. Passenger numbers are on track this year to surpass the airport's record year in 2000, with more than a quarter-million people boarding here in the first four months of 2005.

"We will not spend another dime on this project until we have all the numbers in place," said Lazarus, the only council member at the project meeting.

The delay is likely to last until September, meaning the opening of the terminal could be pushed from 2007 to late 2008 or 2009, Lazarus said.

By September, the county will have a better idea whether it will receive federal funding for the massive project, he said.

Contractors and county staff were working Tuesday to whittle down the total cost through a process called "value engineering," which should bring the price tag closer to the amount of money the county is willing to spend, said county Administration Division Director Anne Wright, who was at the morning meeting.

Local funding is $120 million, leaving the county with a gaping shortfall by any cost figures. The money so far is from $70 million in county bonds and a variety of sources including airport coffers, the Myrtle Beach Air Force Base Redevelopment Authority and a settlement with the city of Myrtle Beach on airport funds.

Council Chairwoman Liz Gilland said the county has done most of the heavy lifting on the project and the hiatus is due to lack of support.

"This is not saying we are not going to build. We are going to pull back until we have increased community support," Gilland said. "We haven't built anything in the last 10 years or will build anything in the next 10 that will have a more immediate impact on the economy than a new airport terminal."

She said the terminal will have wide benefits and should merit more support from the area, including the city of Myrtle Beach, the golf industry and the Redevelopment Authority.

A new terminal would allow the local tourism industry to draw in new clientele it hasn't been able to in the past, said Brad Dean, president and chief executive of the Myrtle Beach Area Chamber of Commerce.

Tourists from the Midwest and West will be able to travel to the Grand Strand for less money and with less planning, breaking the area's heavy dependence on drive-in tourism from neighboring states, Dean said.

Mickey McCamish, president of Myrtle Beach Golf Holiday, said he plans to lobby for support of the terminal project during the June meeting of Council of Myrtle Beach Organizations, which represents an array of area businesses.

"I think the expansion of the airport is absolutely necessary not only for the golf industry but for the tourism industry," McCamish said. "It is our economic engine."