There had been plenty of disagreements between Myrtle Beach and Horry County leaders in the years leading up to the announcement that the Myrtle Beach Air Force Base would close – squabbles over 911 emergency services, overlapping taxes and trash disposal.
But the feud that erupted over who would control redevelopment of the base after its closure was unprecedented, and it created a fissure between both governments that took years to heal.
The differences stemmed from a unique arrangement that puts Myrtle Beach International Airport – which was called a jetport at the time – under control of Horry County even though the airport is entirely within the Myrtle Beach city limits.
Horry County leaders wanted the base land set aside for a future expanded airport, with a second runway and an aviation-related industrial park. Myrtle Beach officials didn’t want a major airport within the city limits. They said there was no need for a second runway – after all, the airport wasn’t that busy – and the base land would be better suited for a mixed-use residential and commercial project, with parks and recreation facilities for residents.
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In the end, neither side got to choose.
After two years of bickering between city and county leaders, then-S.C. Gov. Carroll Campbell stepped in and brokered a deal with the military that gave state-owned utility Santee Cooper control over most of the base land, where housing developments now are being built. Campbell and the state legislature then created an independent authority -- comprised of city, county and state appointees -- to oversee redevelopment of the remaining base property.
Area leaders say the air base feud has since faded into history.
“No one has mentioned that in an awfully long time, so for me it has disappeared,” said City Manager Tom Leath. “I do not believe that folks who were involved took it personally and [they] were able to move to the next issue and work through it. We fought the fight and we got over it. We have had fights since and have gotten over it.”
Horry County Councilman Paul Prince -- who served on the council when the base closed and currently represents the county’s ninth district -- remembers the heated disagreements but said he’s pleased with the outcome two decades later.
“There may have been some errors along the way, but everyone has done a great job with redevelopment,” Prince said.
Leath said the city’s focus is on “the redevelopment that has taken place on the old base and what is yet to come. We don’t spend much time worrying about the dust-ups that occurred along the way.”
Here’s Myrtle Beach and Horry County let control of the base slip through their hands, with quotes from political and business leaders at the time telling the story:
The announcement: The Myrtle Beach Air Force Base for months had been rumored to be on the chopping block as the federal Base Realignment and Closure Commission looked for military facilities to shutter as a post-Cold War budget-cutting measure. The split between Myrtle Beach and Horry County leaders was evident even before an official announcement was made. Both political bodies formed their own, independent committees to lobby federal officials to save the base.
When the base was included on the July 1991 list of facilities scheduled to close, city officials appeared to call for a truce.
“We’ve really got to back off without any big egos being involved” – City Councilman Harry Charles
“It’s just vital that we get a committee that’s representative of all jurisdictions and that’s going to bring us something that’s going to help us all,” – City Manager Leath
As they extended the olive branch, though, city leaders also announced that they wanted to obtain federal funding for a master, land-use plan at the base; one that didn’t include an expanded airport.
“If you’re losing money and jobs because of closure, you can’t afford to let that land sit idle waiting 20 years to be used as a jetport.” – City Manager Leath
The military’s Office of Economic Adjustment, in charge of allocating federal grants for base redevelopment, told local officials it would not provide any money until the community could provide a united front.
Campbell’s commission: Gov. Campbell wasted no time getting the state’s foot in the door for redevelopment at the Myrtle Beach base. Just days after the closure announcement, the governor announced his S.C. Defense Base Development Commission to spur economic recovery from the state’s closing military facilities. That commission would serve as the official liaison between the state and the Office of Economic Adjustment.
Campbell’s decision, made without local input, angered Myrtle Beach leaders.
“We don’t have to lay down and die for the governor. We don’t have to lay down and die for the county or anyone else. We need to take the initiative.” – City Councilman Bob Hirsch
However, federal officials urged all sides to work together.
“We must direct our energies toward turning adversity into an opportunity. The local community has already proven its ability to pull together in its efforts to save the base. There are countless opportunities available for us.” – U.S. Rep. Robin Tallon, whose district included the base
The meeting: Horry County Council invited its counterparts from Myrtle Beach to meet on Aug. 14, 1991, in the auditorium at the old Burroughs School in Conway to talk about base redevelopment. Myrtle Beach officials said they thought the meeting was going to be an opportunity for both sides to hash out their differences. Instead, city officials were seated in the audience while county officials sat onstage.
County Administrator Doug Freeman presented the city with a redevelopment plan showing the county in charge of a nearly 4,000-acre airport expansion with supporting facilities. Freeman also told the city who would serve on the local base redevelopment committee and how its subcommittees would be set up.
City officials were angry, saying they had no idea the county was already putting together a re-use plan for the base without asking for their input.
“I can’t remember when I’ve felt more like a little school kid being dictated to. I hear no mention of the city of Myrtle Beach.” – City Councilman Hirsch
“I feel very strongly that you need to keep in mind that [the base] is entirely in the city of Myrtle Beach” – Myrtle Beach Mayor Bob Grissom
“We don’t have a good chain of communication with the municipalities, so their reaction was not surprising.” – Horry County Councilman Dewey Kirkley
Outsiders didn’t seem to be surprised by the schism.
“Lord knows with a county like Horry we would be a prime example to show you a different way of doing things – splintered and divided.” – Bill Pritchard, executive vice president of Burroughs & Chapin Co. Inc.
After the meeting, the Office of Economic Adjustment reiterated its stance that no federal dollars would flow to this area unless the city and county could create a joint economic recovery committee.
“We have no commitment from your area and we can’t fund anything until we get that commitment. The more time they spend shooting at each other, the less time there is to do planning and marketing properly. If it comes to a shootout, the secretary of the Air Force may get to choose who gets the property [and] not everyone might agree with that.” – David McKinnon, senior project director at the Office of Economic Adjustment
Two years later: The city and the county were supposed to form a joint commission to study base redevelopment, but the county backed out because the commission – not the county – would be in charge of jetport expansion. So the city formed its own commission and drew up its own re-use plan, which allowed for a compromise second runway but only within the existing airfield and without any additional base land. County officials said the city’s plan was impractical.
The two sides rarely talked even as the Air Force was winding down its operations at the base in advance of a March 1993 closure.
The Air Force, eager to transfer the base property, gave the city and county a Sept. 15, 1993, deadline to make a decision. That deadline passed without a resolution to the airport feud, but both sides started meeting again.
“There’s more at stake than just this [airport] issue. There’s the issue of how these two governments will get along on future issues.” – County Council Chairman Joey McNutt
The county presented its own compromise – set aside enough land for a second runway to be built decades in the future while allowing development to take place in the interim. But the city wouldn’t budge.
“The kind of industry that could pick up and leave isn’t the kind of industry we’d like to attract.” – City Councilwoman Judy Rodman
As 1993 drew to a close with base redevelopment still undecided, Freeman made a pitch to the Federal Aviation Administration in which the county claimed it needed 400 acres adjacent to the jetport to secure its radar facilities.
“It’s just another scheme … that’s all it is.” – City Councilman Wilson Cain
The city countered by asking the military if it could take control of the jetport away from the county.
“If the city runs the jetport, we remove the county and eliminate the conflict.” – City Councilman Charles
“I don’t take it serious. It’s ridiculous and ludicrous. I think this is totally irresponsible on their [the city’s] part.” – County Attorney Pat Henry
Talks went nowhere.
“I don’t see how a bunch of people can be so damn stupid. I think it’s absurd that the sides can’t sit down together. They’re all doing a disservice to the community, and that’s not fair”. -- Dick Rosen, former president and chief executive of electronics manufacturer AVX Corp., previously based in Myrtle Beach
“What it boils down to is a lot of personal vendettas. Both governments have fallen way short of what they were supposed to do.” – County Council Chairman McNutt
“We just wish they could reach an accord” – Pat McCullough, southeast manager for the Air Force Base Disposal Agency
Record of decision: Amidst the ongoing – yet fruitless – talks between the city and county, Campbell once again offered to step in and broker a compromise. Campbell proposed to the military that the state should get the bulk of the base property, with state-owned utility Santee Cooper to be put in charge of its redevelopment. The governor’s plan was short on specifics, but it did guarantee that an unspecified amount of base land would be set aside for a second runway.
“The state should have been here a long time ago. We’ve really needed some support from the governor.” – County Council Chairman McNutt
“Hopefully now, this action will move things forward.” – U.S. Rep. Arthur Ravenel
“This has really created animosity rather than unity.” – City Councilwoman Rodman
When the Air Force finally announced who would get the base land – through its Record of Decision issued on Nov. 17, 1993 – the city and county were largely left in the cold. The Air Force agreed to give the state 1,545 acres of the Myrtle Beach base in exchange for land the state gave to the military near Sumter Air Force Base. About 1,015 acres were designated for the jetport, giving the facility some additional hangars along the flight line but leaving little room for expansion and no space for a second runway. The city would be allowed to purchase the 230-acre Whispering Pines Golf Course (the city later negotiated to get the course for free). The remaining land would be controlled by a state-created authority whose job would be to spur redevelopment while setting aside property for parks, recreation and educational use.
“We tried to accommodate Myrtle Beach and Horry County in as many of their goals as we possibly could. Believe me, that’s not something you do over afternoon tea. It sure would have been easier if they’d been able to come up with just one plan.” – McCullough with the Air Force Base Disposal Agency
“The time for disputes has passed and the opportunity for a new era of cooperation has been placed in our laps. Today’s decision clearly recognizes that the state must play a significant role in balancing the interests of local governments.” – S.C. Gov. Campbell