CONWAY — The Horry County Administration Committee approved terms of the lease with Executive Helicopters Friday, but not after a stern revision by County Chairman Mark Lazarus that gives the county a little more say-so if the helicopter company wants to make non-federally mandated changes to its routes.
The terms of the five-year lease are expected to be reviewed at the full County Council meeting Sept. 3, which is well in advance of the Oct. 31 expiration date of its current five-year contract.
Executive Helicopters, the holding company for Huffman Helicopters, has been in talks with the county after council voted in June not to renew its current contract with the tourist attraction. Councilmen were receiving complaints of noise and excessive rides over neighborhoods along the Grand Strand. Before the county cast its first vote on the issue, Jeremy Bass, owner of Huffman Helicopters, changed the routes to ride along the shore at a height of 1,200 feet.
Chairman Lazarus said he wanted to make sure the routes, which were outlined in a letter with the Federal Aviation Administration, was attached to the lease agreement.
“If Mr. Bass agrees that these are the routes that he’s going to fly and we agree that we accept those routes, then I can’t see unreasonably why we couldn’t pull his lease if he started flying routes that we didn’t approve,” Lazarus said. However, the FAA is the only agency that can regulate the helicopters and their routes.
“We’re bound by Federal Aviation regulations,” Bass told the administration committee Friday. “This is stronger than even if it was possible to put it in the lease. If we break that [letter of agreement]... we’re risking everything because we’re violating federal rules that were set out for us as pilots and operators. It gives you a whole lot more strength in the deal because now you got the federal government watching over us and now you don’t have to monitor us because you have 38 guys in the control tower doing that for you.”
Bass was referring to the control tower at Myrtle Beach International Airport, who will monitor the helicopters and notify Bass if any of his pilots deviate outside of the outlined path or the permitted half mile buffer, as allowed by the law.
Lazarus wanted wording in the agreement to state Bass would come to the county council if he wanted to make any changes, outside of required changes by the FAA, to the council before implementing them. When informed the law only requires Huffman Helicopters to inform the county of any changes, Lazarus put his foot down.
“I can’t accept that,” Lazarus said. “I’m sorry. We just discussed this. This is a binding agreement between two parties that we agreed to. If he has to make changes to the binding agreement, he has to give us notification and we have to agree to it.”
Mike LaPier, director of airports for Horry County, re-iterated the county’s lack of authority in the matter.
“As the county, we don’t have authority to legislate flight traffic,” LaPier said.
“I understand that, we’ve already been over that,” Lazarus rebutted. “What we do have authority over is two reasonable parties to enter into an agreement, and that’s what we’re doing. Our agreement is these are the flight paths that he’s going to run – no more, no less. If he does more or less, he needs to come get approval from this body. Period. End of discussion.”
Bass agreed to inform the council of any changes.
“I’m fine with doing that too,” he said. “I’m completely fine with doing that and getting approval and discussing it, because I have no intention to ever change.”
Half of Bass’ routes would fly over land and the other half over water for the past 10 years or so. He said this change and negotiation with the county has impacted his bottom line.
“This has taken a chunk out of our volume of tours by only flying over the beach,” he said. “A lot of people want to see a lot of the attractions, so that’s cut a big chunk of our volume of tours out by adopting this. We understand that’s a move that needs to be made so we’re glad to do it.”
Executive Helicopters leases 182,000 square feet, or three parcels, from the county at Myrtle Beach International Airport – two are hangars and one is flat ground where the helicopters take flight. One hangar is used for maintenance and another hangar, located in the old DHL hangar, is for flight school.
The new lease calls for Executive Helicopters to spend about $40,000 on improvements for its flight school hangar. The company also plans to create about 65 new jobs.
In the lease, the county will also receive 5 percent of all sales from Huffman and collect just under $83,000 annually for rent.
Councilman Marion Foxworth has expressed his concern about the 5 percent kick back the county is getting, which is similar to agreements it has with other vendors at the airport, LaPier said.
“I do think we ought to really change what we’re calling it to rather than a lease agreement, it’s really an equity partnership,” Foxworth said.
Contact JASON M. RODRIGUEZ at 626-0301 or follow him at Twitter.com/TSN_jrodriguez.