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Gear Down: Charleston Airport Overhaul Coming In For Landing

Mez Joseph

From Charleston Post & Courier
By Warren L. Wise
wwise@postandcourier.com

Elizabeth Snyder flies in and out of Charleston International Airport several times a month on business. She remembers the dark brown walls, the clickety-clack tile floors and the lack of power-charging stations for today's plugged-in passengers.

For the better part of the past four years, Snyder, along with about 3.5 million fellow fliers coming and going, encountered the exposed duct work and wiring, temporary walls and slew of construction workers as the $200 million expansion and renovation consumed the state's busiest airport terminal.

"Everybody was just kind of jammed together," the North Charleston resident said. "They did a good job of directing you where you needed to go, but sometimes you had to look twice because it would change from week to week." The finished product evokes a different reaction.

"Everything moves smoothly now," Snyder said. "It's so bright and cheerful. I think it's a very welcoming place for all the people coming to visit Charleston. It's also easy for those of us just trying to get through it." Her favorite part is the dome over the Central Hall.

"It's beautiful," she said. "It lets so much light in." While a few minor touch-ups remain, on Tuesday, Charleston County Aviation Authority, which oversees the airport, will celebrate completion of the terminal's expansion by one-third.

The four-year project pumped more than $211 million into the local economy and supported 1,400 jobs. The airport, itself, is an economic powerhouse in the region.

The Central Hall at Charleston International Airport serves as the architectural centerpiece
of the $200 million renovation and expansion of the terminal.

More than $1 billion flow into the Charleston area's economy each year from jobs at the terminal and its tenants, including those generated by visiting air travelers, according to the Charleston Metro Chamber of Commerce. The airport's 1,000-plus jobs support another 3,000 in the region.

"It's a big impact for the Charleston community, and it's the first impression people see of the area," Airport CEO Paul Campbell said. "It's important to have a first-class facility for all the people traveling through Charleston now."

Navigating the Glitches

Piloting the construction project wasn't always a smooth ride, though. Campbell, who plans to step down after steering the airport for the past three years once a replacement is hired, likened the work to a mother giving birth. "Sometimes it wasn't so much fun, but in retrospect, it wasn't all that bad," Campbell said.

Along with the challenges of making sure about 450 construction workers were vetted and properly badged to work behind security lines at the airport, a few minor mishaps also put the staff to the test.

One Sunday, early on during construction, the United Airlines office flooded in about 4-5 inches of rainwater after a drainage pipe leading from the roof clogged at ground level. The water backed up and poured through the ceiling. "We were in there with towels and rags sopping up the water," Campbell said.

In another instance, a piece of hot metal slag from a work er's torch as he cut through metal dropped on an American Airlines' office desk and caused a small fire. "The airline workers were close by to catch it before it became anything serious," Campbell said. "It wasn't a big event. It was just aggravating." The discovery of asbestos in some of the walls slowed the project down as well and added $1.4 million to the cost.

Other add-ons and scope of work changes, including an architectural element known as a "clerestory" on the Delta wing, delayed the project, which originally was set for completion in August 2015.

Airport dignitaries officially broke ground in October 2012 on the area where the new rental car pavilion is now located, though construction didn't start until a few months later.

Today, the terminal looks little like it did four years ago. The dark brown walls and floors have given way to a brighter, cleaner look while yards of floor-to-ceiling new windows pour light into the building.

"It's just much more open now," Campbell said. "It's pleasant to move around in." Campbell, a retired Alcoa executive, was tapped to lead the airport when former director Sue Stevens suddenly resigned in 2013, citing bullying by what was then an all-male board and filing a complaint of gender discrimination. The action was eventually settled out of court.

But her departure and the turmoil that ensued came at a critical time for the airport. Officials were about to borrow $170 million by issuing bonds to pay for the terminal's makeover. "It was a bit of a challenge," Campbell said. "The bond people were concerned because the airport had no executive director. They were having to struggle with what the rating would be or even if they could place the bonds." Eventually, the Aviation Authority hired Campbell, with his corporate experience, and smoothed things over with the bond folks to borrow the money to pay for the work.

Crowning Touch

One of the ideas that came out of talks for the new terminal included a dome as the architectural centerpiece in the Central Hall. Former board chairman Chip Limehouse first offered the concept, one he now calls "an architecturally significant" aspect at the gateway to the Lowcountry.

"It was a long, hard-fought battle to get it, but it prevailed," Limehouse said. "It goes to show you what the community working together can do." The airport, built in 1985, added five gates to bring t he total to 15, a third baggage carousel and a consolidated security checkpoint with eight lanes, replacing the Transportation Security Administration's separate and unwieldy stations at the entrances to each concourse.

All of the jet bridges are new, along with $10 million in vendor upgrades. "It's been a real journey, but it's not over," Campbell said.

A new Hudson retail store will soon be added to Delta wing along with Charleston Beer Works restaurant and bar. And the memorial to the victims and families of the 2015 shootings at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston is set to open in March. Last week, golfing legend Jack Nicklaus was at the airport to help open one of airport's new dining options, Golden Bear Grill.

Plans are already in the works to begin construction next summer on a second parking deck. In 2018, the ticket hall could be expanded to add more airlines. And by 2021, airport officials could be looking to add a third wing with more gates to handle the expected 4-plus million passengers a year by then.

"It's hard to keep up with the way we are growing," Campbell said. "But it's a good problem to have."

The Central Hall at Charleston International Airport as it looked before
the terminal's $200 million overhaul.