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.
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:
When the base was included on the July 1991 list of facilities scheduled to close, city officials appeared to call for a truce.
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.
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 decision, made without local input, angered Myrtle Beach leaders.
However, federal officials urged all sides to work together.
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.
Outsiders didn’t seem to be surprised by the schism.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The city countered by asking the military if it could take control of the jetport away from the county.
Talks went nowhere.
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.