Horry County Council members are exploring more competitive airplane fuel prices, a more aggressive approach to leasing land owned by Horry County and improving facilities at the county’s four airports as talks of selling three of its airports have subsided.
The Horry County Department of Airports saw a $152,000 loss last year operating its three smaller airports — Grand Strand Regional in North Myrtle Beach, Conway and Loris. The department also runs the area’s largest airport, Myrtle Beach International, which is the only one that operates at a profit.
“With the exception of Myrtle Beach, they’re all losing money,” said Council Chairman Mark Lazarus at the council’s spring budget retreat last week. “The decision has got to be made at some point, do we really want to keep Conway? Is it a necessary component? Or do we want to give the opportunity there for private developers? We’re building T-hangars there now, so you’re going to see some incomes come up there.
“We’re going to have to figure out the right model for Loris, if we continue, or do we sell Loris? We may look at selling Loris and Conway and operate with all of our forces into the two other ones.”
But a report from Pat Apone, director of the Department of Airports, changed the tone of the conversation as she outlined the department’s recent strides to get the smaller airports making a profit.
Councilman Al Allen, who is also a pilot, said he has seen the changes at Conway airport, including an adjustment to make fuel prices more competitive with Columbus County (N.C.) Municipal Airport, which is known for its low airplane fuel prices.
“They have done an excellent job at the Conway airport and I’ve seen a lot of changes compared to our past leadership in the airports,” Allen said. “They are starting to attract some of that traffic away from the [Columbus County] airport and they are folks who are flying, looking for the cheaper fuel when they come there that see there is so much more to offer when they come to Conway airport than in Whiteville (N.C.) They don’t have a maintenance facility, they don’t have any hangars available and we have all of that.”
In North Myrtle Beach, the airport was built during World War II by the Air Force, and was first known as the “Wampee Flight Strip.” It was closed after World War II and turned over for local government use by the War Assets Administration, according to the city of North Myrtle Beach.
Aviation company Ramp 66 had run the 427-acre airport since 1978. In 2013, the county signed off on a plan to buy back the last seven years of the lease on the airport and took back management. Money used to buy out the contract came from $2 million the airport received from a sale of land. The move came after Ramp 66 was not able to find a private buyer. So, the county stepped in and used existing fuel and hangar contracts to obtain lower costs with the Grand Strand Airport. It also plans to see reduced liability insurance offered to governments by the state.
Shortly after acquiring the Grand Strand Airport, it began the North Ramp Apron reconstruction project and installed LEED lighting on the hangars to enhance safety and security.
Councilman Harold Worley said the county knew what would face when it took over control of Grand Strand.
“We chose to move forward with those renovations to bring those levels of services up and not necessarily to make money, but to give the highest level of services to try to bring in more business and economic development partners,” Worley said.
Apone said a recent uptick in military fueling sales has traditionally helped two of its airports.
“Both of these airports, [Myrtle Beach International] and Grand Strand, both have a history of making money off of military sales,” she said.
The county’s airport department has a tract of land near Barefoot Resort in North Myrtle Beach and an 80-acre piece of land in front of the former Myrtle Beach Air Force Base. Lazarus said he’d be interested in hearing what the airport could do with it.
“Come back to us with a plan,” Lazarus said. “I think we’ll be very receptive to it. You’ve got a lot of properties to deal with. You’re also taking the initiative of looking at leasing versus selling property in North Myrtle Beach, which would give us a continual revenue stream to help support the North Myrtle Beach airport, which I think is a good thing. We’re getting a lot of interest in that.”
“This administration is taking much better initiative, to me, than our prior administration has and I appreciate that,” he said.
Apone took over the department in September 2013 after the contract of Mike LaPiere, former director, was not renewed.
Lazarus said he was pleased with the direction the airport was going.
“I think the consensus is not to seek private industry to come in and operate, but maybe look at the private industry to build their own hangars and maybe lease some space,” Lazarus said. “I think they’re in the right direction.”