Grand Strand leaders talk jobs and roads

Myrtle Beach, Horry County, and state lawmakers met Monday morning to set a legislative agenda of priorities for Horry County and the communities surrounding it.

It was a who's who of local leaders, and it was the largest group ever.

Thanks to redistricting, Horry and Georgetown counties have nearly doubled their representation, from 6 to 11 state representatives or senators going to Columbia.

"That's unprecedented," State Representative Alan Clemmons said. "And it puts Myrtle Beach, Horry County, and every community within Horry County on par with other areas in the state, like Greenville and Charleston. Our voice is getting larger."

The main talking point the leaders discussed was an update on job creation along the Grand Strand. Myrtle Beach Regional Economic and Development Corporation CEO Brad Lofton says in 2012 they have announced 400 new jobs, and have an additional 1,300 pending.

"We're about 400 percent better than what we've averaged over the last 10 years. We're a leader in the state right now in prospect activity and job creation," Lofton said.

In the weeks to come and early next year, he expects additional job announcements will include two manufacturing announcements, including one in Conway, a new technology company in North Myrtle Beach, and the development of International Technology and Aerospace Park, or ITAP. The MBREDC is also working with Clemson University on growing agribusiness opportunities in Horry County, Lofton said.

Lofton said they are also meeting with an average of six companies that area already in the area about growing. To date the state's commerce department has given $350,000 in state grant money to the MBREDC. It's that money plus local tax incentives that makes the area competitive to companies to locate here.

"We are marketing towards site selection," Lofton told the group. "We have been to Dallas, Chicago, San Francisco-all over the country to say Myrtle Beach is open for business."

Next Thursday, the MBREDC will meet again for an in depth retreat to discuss tax incentives.

There were some things in the area Lofton urged lawmakers to advocate for: highway and infrastructure. He wasn't alone.

"We lose 85 percent of opportunity for new jobs in Horry County for one reason and one reason alone. That is the lack of interstate connectivity to Horry County," Clemmons, a proponent for I-73, said.

Clemmons added that so far about $100 million in state and federal funding has been set aside for Iinterstate 73 construction. He said the state is on the verge of receiving the permits that would allow construction of I-73.

"That funding is mostly going towards soft costs but also towards buying the right of way (the land that is necessary on which to build). The first part of construction for I-73, is going to be the interchange with I-95 and several miles of new interstate highway. We believe that is going to start within the next two years," Clemmons said.

Clemmons said more money would be needed to complete the highway. He said the general assembly, former county council chairman (now congressman-elect) Tom Rice, and the state infrastructure bank chairman, Don Leonard, have met several times to discuss what it would take to make the long talked about roadway a reality.

"We believe the opportunities are there but what it is going to take is partnership between local government, state government, and federal government funding," Clemmons said.

SCDOT also updated the delegation on the progress of the road construction at the backgate of the former Air Force base on Highway 17 Bypass in Horry County.

Mike Barbee, Regional Production Engineer with SCDOT, told the group the project is 40 percent complete.

"Overall with the project we're approximately 40 percent complete. The total cost of the project is $120 million. That includes all our design fees, the purchase of right away, and the actual construction cost, and we're about 40 percent expenditures to date," he said.

Barbee added they have spent about $15 million on the project to date, or about a quarter of a million dollars a week. They plan to start having crews work more weekends, and suffered only a few small delays from washouts.

He said that the wider lane separation thus far has helped tremendously in Market Common. The next big traffic shift this spring will mostly affect those trying to get to Market Common.

"Currently we've been building up the west side ramps. Next Spring we will pave those, and open those up to construction. So we can switch the south bound traffic back over, and that will open up an area large enough to construct the dual bridges over Farrow Parkway and 707.

He said signs will be posted to let drivers know about the changes far before they happen.

"What we'll be doing is creating a wider intersection so it's just really incumbent upon the drivers to pay attention. Pay attention, especially to the signage we'll have out there to direct them to the various locations," Barbee said.