MYRTLE BEACH, S.C. -- The Myrtle Beach International Airport could be the busiest in South Carolina by 2005, but it is not going to happen unless the airport is able to expand its property and aggressively market its services.
More than 1 million people passed through its gates last year, helping the airport surpass Columbia's as the third-busiest in the state. Only Charleston and Greenville-Spartanburg airports had higher amounts.
Passenger levels at the county airport, however, are expected to exceed 2 million in the next four years, said Bob Kemp, the county's director of airports.
"That is an issue we are trying to deal with," he said.
The primary issue for airport expansion has been Horry County's attempt to have 63 acres adjoining the international airport given to it by the Myrtle Beach Air Base Redevelopment Authority as a public conveyance.
The additional land is essential for a second runway, and without it taxpayers could incur more than $15 million in new expenses should the 63 acres be developed and encroachments made upon existing airport property, Mr. Kemp said.
Mr. Kemp said any encroachment would force the airport to move an airfield surveillance radar so there is enough clear zone to satisfy Federal Aviation Administration rules.
The radar would cost at least $8.2 million to move and more to start from scratch, Mr. Kemp said. The $15.7 million cost also includes building new access roads and a taxiway, putting in security fencing and potential lost revenue from not owning the acreage.
Mr. Kemp said the airport simply is running out of space, which is stifling the county's ability to attract new carriers or industrial customers.
"We just can't go out and say, `We need service to the world,"' he said. "An airline won't service us if they're going to lose money." Eleven airlines now fly into Myrtle Beach, but Mr. Kemp said there are some other natural fits like Southwest and United Airlines and AirTran, whose Atlanta hub serves primarily the South and areas east of the Mississippi River.
The county repeatedly has asked the authority to give it the property, but so far it has relented despite resolutions from the county and Myrtle Beach encouraging the move.
Buddy Styers, the authority's executive authority, said Tuesday was the first time he had ever heard of the potential cost to relocate the radar, which is the type of information his agency wants from the county.
"How many jobs are you going to produce, how much revenue do you need to operate the airport, and how are you going to do it?" he said.
Mr. Kemp is planning a presentation before the authority's board March 3, and the county always can buy the land if it wants it badly enough. Using county figures estimating $40,000 for one acre, that would cost $5.2 million.
What happens at the base could have a profound impact on the entire Grand Strand, county officials have said. Historically, the county and city have wrangled about what should be done with the base property.
The county is negotiating with Santee Cooper for 300 acres of base land, known as Parcel 2B, the state-owned utility was charged with dispensing of when the base closed six years ago.
All of the air base property is located in Myrtle Beach, and some officials want it developed industrially rather than solely residentially.
Representatives of WBLC which bought 902 acres of base property from the state last month recently have contacted the county and want to discuss what can be done there.
Council Chairman Chad Prosser, R-Garden City Beach, has said the steps taken today can influence the entire area for a long time.
He called acquisition of the 63 acres crucial.
"This community has got to make a decision once and for all that this is the airport and that's where it's going to stay," he said Tuesday.
The immediate concern for the county, however, is a 10-acre tract contained within the 63 acres that is controlled by the authority. Mr. Styers said the authority is negotiating to sell the 10 acres to a business he would not identify, but which he said has told him they have received FAA approval.
He declined to say if that business was the U.S. Postal Service, which wants to build a distribution center on base land.
Mr. Kemp said if it happens the county would have to relocate the surveillance radar, a move officials aren't relishing.
"The airport is seriously threatened," said Mr. Prosser, who has been council's most vocal proponent of diversifying activities on the former base land.