Within a year, possible locations could be identified for a regional airport in northeastern South Carolina that supporters say would boost the area's economy.
An alliance of regional business leaders and lawmakers announced Tuesday it will commission a regional study to determine the ideal size and location of a new international airport.
The study is a critical step in securing federal funding to build the airport, supporters say. It covers 10 counties, including Horry and Georgetown, and could be completed within a year, the Northeastern Strategic Alliance said.
"The importance of a regional airport is huge," said U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-Seneca. "We are trying to plan for a new economy."
The plan is to first create an international trade center in Myrtle Beach that will attract business from around the world, Graham said.
A regional airport would be critical to handle the additional travel, he said.
State Sen. Yancey McGill, D-Kingstree, said the planned Interstate 73 from Michigan to Myrtle Beach would work with the airport and trade center to revolutionize the regional economy, including increasing business during the Grand Strand's slow winter months. I-73 is another project the alliance is working closely on.
Planning on the airport project is in the early stages, and no money has been earmarked for construction.
Once the area can prove it has enough traffic to necessitate a regional airport, Graham said a "full court press" will begin in Congress to get federal funding for the project.
The feasibility study over the next year is a critical step in the process of proving to Congress that the area has a real need for a new airport, Graham said.
The Northeastern Strategic Alliance will choose a firm to conduct the study by July 1, said Howard Lundy, the interim director of the group.
The study will include two phases, the first determining the need and the size of a future airport. The second phase will determine three potential areas for the facility, Lundy said.
Any locations within the 10- county area are on the table as a possibility, he said.
The counties are Marion, Horry, Georgetown, Dillon, Florence, Williamsburg, Chesterfield, Clarendon, Darlington and Marlboro.
"We wouldn't try to prejudice the group," Lundy said.
The study will be funding by an FAA grant to Horry County. The agency agreed to reimburse expenses of up to $500,000, though Lundy said only a portion of that will be spent on the study.
The push for a new airport will not affect Horry County's plans to build a new terminal at Myrtle Beach International Airport that is estimated at $228 million, county spokeswoman Lisa Bourcier said.
"The need for the new terminal is now," she said. "If the study reveals a need for a regional airport, we are looking at 15 to 20 years out before it can become a reality."