Horry County and the owners of Carolina Southern Railroad are working separately for a sale of the railroad, one of which would be forced if it comes.
Tommy Brittain, an attorney for Carolina Southern owner Ken Pippin, said Thursday afternoon the Pippins are looking for a buyer for the railroad that hasn't operated in nearly two years.
“They are prepared to sell the railroad,” Brittain said.
That will come as good news to members of the Horry County Council and a two-state committee that has been meeting for more than a year to figure out a way to get the railroad back in operation. The Council’s Infrastructure and Regulation Committee took action Thursday morning to send to the full Council a recommendation that Horry join with Columbus County, N.C., to fund a lawyer to seek a forced sale of the railroad.
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Brittain said he was trying to contact Horry County government attorney Arrigo Carotti to discuss the new developments in the saga.
Neither Ken Pippin nor his son Jason Pippin, the railroad’s general manager, were available for comment Thursday.
The I and R Committee discussed funding the attorney in a closed session during its meeting, and voted in open session only to pass on a recommendation to the full Council to take the action discussed behind closed doors without giving any details.
But Horry County Council Chairman Mark Lazarus said prior to the Thursday morning meeting that he expected that the action would be discussed during the open portion of the meeting. Lazarus said he anticipated Doug Wendel, co-chairman of the two-state committee, would talk about it and about a partnership with Columbus County.
Wendel did not say anything, though, and left the meeting shortly after the vague vote.
He would not discuss specifics of the closed door session, which he attended, but said that should legal action begin, it would be initiated by the county and not the committee.
County Councilman Gary Loftus, who was also in the closed session, wouldn't discuss specifics either. But he said he expected the Council to discuss potential action regarding the railroad during its meeting next week.
“I know there’ll be a vote Tuesday night,” he said.
If the Council votes to hire an attorney, then Gary Lanier, director of the Columbus County Economic Development Commission, said he wouldn’t be surprised to hear at a railroad committee meeting scheduled for Thursday afternoon that a lawyer has been hired to file an action with the U.S. Surface Transportation Board to force the railroad’s sale.
Lanier suggested the action would be based on a clause in transportation code that speaks to the obligations of a common carrier such as Carolina Southern.
Industrial customers along the railroad’s 100-mile route in Horry, Columbus and Marion counties have been forced to find more expensive alternate ways to get raw materials and ship out finished goods since the railroad stopped operating. Columbus County officials fear the loss of 400 jobs from the possible closure of a timber mill because of the absence of railroad service.
Lanier said that the Columbus County Board of Commissioners set aside $30,000 months ago to be used for any legal action that may be necessary regarding the railroad. He said that Horry County’s share would be about double that amount, but Loftus said no costs were discussed in the closed session.
Either route to a sale of the railroad would be a relief to members of the railroad committee, who have grown increasingly frustrated with attempts to resolve the closure. The committee voted no confidence in the Pippins several months ago because of a lack of progress.
Additionally, Loftus has said on more than one occasion that he sees no point to attending the meetings when essentially nothing happens.
Lanier said that committee members have been frustrated by a seeming lack of cooperation on the part of the Pippins.
The Pippins said they don’t have the estimated $2 million to fix the bridges, but Lanier said they won't share either personal or railroad information to prove that is true.
Ken Pippin, for instance, owns three condominiums in Horry County with a combined value of nearly $900,000, according to Horry County records. Both Pippins have said previously that they own a building in Baltimore, Md., from which they get some income.
“None of us know what the real situation is,” Lanier said.
The committee also has been thwarted in trying to find out what easement fees the railroad charges, even when it is not operating.
Lanier said that he felt that if the Pippins were committed to returning service to Carolina Southern, they should be willing to put some of their own money toward the effort, even if that meant they had sell some assets to do so.
He did agree, though, that Horry and Columbus counties likely could find a way to lend the $2 million to the railroad's owner to fix the bridges. Instead, no government in either county was willing to sponsor a second try to get a federal government grant to make the repairs.
The first try for the federal money, sponsored by Horry County, was unsuccessful. Since then, the funding rules have changed so that $4 in local money would be required for every $1 of federal grant money.
Loftus is equally frustrated as Lanier.
While not divulging details about the closed session, he said it would make sense that if the Horry County were considering action regarding the railroad, it would hire a lawyer with the specialized knowledge to guide the effort.
He emphasized that it is time for something to happen.
“Do it or get off the pot,” he said.