Horry county taxpayers not on the hook for WestJet revenue guarantee

It appears local taxpayers will not be stuck paying a $570,000 bill to WestJet Airline from a revenue guarantee that turned out bad.

County council leaders were offered a plan Friday to pay off the debt, though even supporters of the plan say it's the lesser of many evils.

Hopes were high among Grand Strand tourism leaders when the first WestJet plane landed in Myrtle Beach in May.

The county had guaranteed the Canadian airline a 15 percent profit on its Toronto to Myrtle Beach route, though few officials at the time believed the county would have to make up the difference.

However, WestJet passenger numbers this summer turned out weaker than expected, so the county is on the hook for the shortfall.

The county council's administration committee heard an offer Friday from the Myrtle Beach Area Chamber of Commerce to pay off $250,000 of the debt by using accommodations tax revenue that had been earmarked for out-of-market promotion.

"Frankly, while it's not an ideal outcome, it's certainly in adherence with state law and it just simply settles this agreement and hopefully enables WestJet to come back in 2014," said chamber president Brad Dean.

Dean says the remaining $300,000 or so would be set aside from future accommodations tax revenue over five years.

County council chairman Mark Lazarus likes the offer, pointing out that no property tax money would be used and tourism did benefit from at least some Canadian visitors.

"We brought in a couple thousand people that flew in on the airplanes, we went into a new market that wasn't coming here and we generated an exceptional amount of revenue out of the people that were here," said Lazarus.

Chamber officials have said WestJet passengers had a more than $6 million impact on the Grand Strand economy.

But Lazarus says he's not happy with parts of the WestJet revenue guarantee, which was approved before he was on the council.

Dean says it's doubtful they would do the same contract again.

"WestJet has benefited our local economy. Now we just need to get out from under this arrangement and hopefully work a different arrangement next year."

There's no guarantee WestJet will be back in Myrtle Beach next year, after its season ends October 23.

Dean says it's a positive sign that tickets to Myrtle Beach for next year are still for sale on the WestJet web site.