Horry County's airport director to step down after 12-year stint

May 1, 2009


May 1--Horry County's airport director, who is responsible for Myrtle Beach International Airport and three smaller airports in the county, is probably retiring, he said Thursday, potentially ending a nearly 12-year tenure that was at times marked with controversy.

Bob Kemp, who came to Horry County in 1997 after serving as the director of Wilmington International Airport in Wilmington, N.C., said Thursday it is simply time for him to call it quits. Nothing has been finalized, though, and officials said the county is still discussing a retirement package for him.

Kemp would be the latest high-ranking county official to leave. Horry County Administrator Danny Knight, who has been on the job for the past 10 years, recently accepted the executive director position at the Horry County Solid Waste Authority, which runs the county's landfill facility.

Praised for his financial responsibility, some county officials said Kemp's sometimes abrasive personality nevertheless made him difficult to get along with.

"A guy told me he would rather wrestle with a tiger in a telephone booth with turpentine on its tail than have a conversation with Bob Kemp," said Councilman Carl Schwartzkopf, who noted Kemp was always friendly towards him.

Kemp, who makes more than $117,000 a year, said he thinks the airport is in good shape. He said he did not have a time frame yet for his potential retirement, during which he plans to relax and have fun.

"I think we've met the goals and the directives given to us by the council," said Kemp, who is in his 60s.

Under Kemp's tenure, the Myrtle Beach airport saw the highest-ever passenger traffic in 2007 -- 844,000 people got on airplanes that year. He also swiftly turned a more than $1.5 million budget deficit in fiscal year 1997 to a $1.6 million surplus by fiscal year 1999.

The airport department has been profitable since, and part of those profits -- $10 million -- is slated to go toward an expansion of the existing terminal building at the airport.

A number of new airlines have also added service to Myrtle Beach in that time, including low-cost carriers Spirit Airlines, which has grown to be the airport's No. 1 carrer, and Allegiant Air, which started flights this week.

But the county also spent millions of dollars on a failed attempt to a build a new terminal on the west side of the airport and lost out on millions more in federal funding, though who exactly is to blame is up for debate. Horry County runs the airport, but the project was quashed in 2007 by a Myrtle Beach city board -- whose approval was required because the airport lies within city limits.

County Councilman Marion Foxworth said Kemp had been a "lightning rod" among some members of the council, though he was not aware of any effort to push him out.

"We're at a good crossroads in the county," Foxworth said. "We're looking for a new administrator. We've had some setbacks in a number of areas and departments, and sometimes looking at things with a fresh set of eyes can be refreshing. I'm looking forward to it."

Others had words of praise. County Council Chairwoman Liz Gilland said although Kemp might not be the most popular airport director, he has certainly been the most effective -- especially when it comes to the airport's finances.

"He could've been everybody's best friend and done what people wanted him to do," she said.

"Instead, he was a hard-nosed airport director, watching out for the bottom line and taking the long-term view and treating everyone equally."

In a telephone message, County Attorney John Weaver said Kemp's possible retirement package is a personnel matter and that council members would not be involved in the process.

Brad Dean, president of the Myrtle Beach Area Chamber of Commerce, said Kemp was instrumental in discussions with airlines about opening new routes.

Last year, the county announced an incentive program, including a break in landing fees, to entice airlines to start new service.

Tourism leaders often say getting new air service is the best way to attract visitors who live too far away to make driving an option.

"The job requires far more than just landing planes," Dean said.

"The person that replaces him will have to possess a great deal of business savvy, political savvy as well as the ability to balance the interests of local businesses, airlines and the public arena."

Contact MIKE CHERNEY at 444-1765.