When the dust had settled, most participants indicated they were more optimistic coming out of the meeting than they had been going into it, and a committee was formed to try and reach the goal of returning rail service.
Columbus County Commission Chairman Amon McKenzie attended, along with commissioners James Prevatte, Buddy Byrd and Charles McDowell. Mayors Terry Mann of Whiteville, Ken Waddell of Chadbourn, Royce Harper of Tabor City and Randy Britt of Fair Bluff also attended.
About 50 people, including representatives of the Horry County and Marion County governing bodies, attended, as well as elected and appointed officials from most towns in which Carolina Southern Railroad operated before shutting down last year due to infrastructure problems.
The meeting was moderated by Gary Lanier, director of the Columbus County Economic Development Commission.
The group voted to form an interstate railroad committee and elected Doug Wendel of Myrtle Beach as chairman. Tabor City attorney Dennis Worley was elected co-chairman.
Wendel brings to the group long experience in both government and private business. He was the first town manager for the city of North Myrtle Beach, S.C. and was the first county administrator for Horry County. After leaving government service, he joined Burroughs and Chapin Company in Myrtle Beach, a major real estate development company, and rose to become the firm’s chief executive officer. Although he has retired as CEO at Burroughs and Chapin, he continues to serve as chairman of the company’s board of directors.
Worley, who grew up between Fair Bluff and Tabor City, has spent his entire professional career practicing law in Tabor City and has been involved in economic development activities over the years. Worley also serves as corporate counsel for Brunswick Electric Membership Cooperative.
Columbus, Horry and Marion counties will each appoint two representatives to serve on the interstate railroad committee. Towns served, or potentially served, by the railroad will each appoint one representative to the committee. Those towns include Fair Bluff, Cerro Gordo, Chadbourn, Whiteville and Tabor City in Columbus County.
The Whiteville Council appointed Mayor Terry Mann to the board Tuesday.
South Carolina towns included on the committee will be Mullins, Nichols, Loris, Conway and Myrtle Beach.
A meeting of the newly formed committee will be held at 4 p.m., Oct. 8 at the Loris Public Safety Center.
Although representatives of all three affected county governments and all towns involved except Cerro Gordo and Nichols, S.C. were at Monday’s session, the elephant not in the room was Carolina Southern Railroad.
Lanier said that although Ken and Jason Pippen, owners of the railroad, were aware of the meeting, they were asked not to attend so that other participants would feel free to voice their opinions.
Horry County Councilman Gary Loftus was more than frank in his assessment. Loftus, who also serves as director of Coastal Carolina University’s center for Economic and Community Development, told the group, “My sentiment is shared by others. As long as the Pippens are involved, nothing is going to happen. Until we somehow get them out of the ownership of the railroad and get some kind of regional authority, nothing is going to happen. Nothing.”
Carolina Southern Railroad suspended operations in August 2011 after the Federal Railroad Administration conducted bridge inspections and found deficiencies in five bridges that trains had to pass over.
It is estimated that repairs to bring those bridges up to current standards would cost $1.5 million, and that repairs to bring the bridges to realistic anticipated future standards would cost more than $4 million.
At Monday’s meeting, it was revealed that the railroad owes Horry County three years of lease payments on its line from Conway to Myrtle Beach, and that the railroad owes nearly $1 million to a bank in South Carolina.
Several applications for assistance have been filed with the federal government, and all applications have been denied.
The State of North Carolina has committed more than $300,000 to help with infrastructure repairs. Sen. Bill Rabon, R-Brunswick, co-chair of the Senate Transportation Committee, has pledged to keep those funds available.
Rabon met last week with Tim Pearson, chief of staff to S.C. Gov. Nikki Haley, to discuss railroad issues. Rabon said that Pearson promised to have S.C. Transportation Secretary Robert Onge get in touch with him to discuss ways to facilitate railway improvements at the state level.
Rabon, who grew up in Fair Bluff, has said that while he is committed to finding state funding to do whatever infrastructure repairs are necessary in North Carolina, no North Carolina funds can be spent in South Carolina.
Rabon and Sen. Michael Walters, D-Robeson, who attended Monday’s meeting, said that the state is prepared to do whatever is necessary to help get the railroad in North Carolina repaired. The problem is that most of the infrastructure problems are in South Carolina, but most of the businesses affected are in North Carolina.
Lex Johnson of Atlantic Packaging in Tabor City told the group that his company is bringing in between 400 and 500 tons of paper a day, and it costs five times as much to ship by truck than it would cost to ship by rail. Laney McKoy of Kroy Building Products in Fair Bluff voiced similar concerns, as did Jim Bowen of Idaho Timber, which operates out of Chadbourn.
Other local participants in the meeting included former Sen. R.C. Soles Jr., Whiteville native Beau Memory representing the N.C. Dept. of Transportation, Chadbourn Town Manager Stevie Cox, Steve Yost of North Carolina’s Southeast, Tabor City businessman Jimmy Garrell and Johnny Edge of the Columbus County Planning Board.
Columbus Commission Chairman Amon McKenzie commented, “I think we’re headed in the right direction. We had a very productive meeting. We made some of the right moves in appointing a chairman and vice chairman and getting attendees from each county and municipality. I view it as positive because everybody knows the railroad is essential to our livelihood. We need to do the items necessary to get it back online. I think this meeting was a step in the right direction.”
Mann said, “I think it’s vital that the county and municipal leaders work on it. It’s vital to economic development in southeastern North Carolina. The lack of rail service is one of the major obstacles we have in recruiting industry right now. I’ve somewhat been involved in government, enough to know that wheels turn slowly. I’m a bit pessimistic because we’re probably talking three or four years before we can make something happen. But there’s no doubt the interest is there and I am glad to see people from Columbus, Horry and Marion counties come together to try and work out a solution.”
Ken Waddell, mayor of Chadbourn and Democratic nominee for the N.C. House of Representatives, said, “I thought the meeting went really well. I was glad to see the large number of folks from North and South Carolina who are interested in rail service understand that the rail needs to be running.”
Tabor City Mayor Royce Harper said, “The meeting was encouraging. We had a lot of support from Columbus, Horry and Marion counties. We had a roomful of committed people there. I hope we can move forward and get this thing going. I am more optimistic after the meeting than I was before the meeting. I’m really encouraged and feel like if there is anything that can be done to restore our rail service, this group will get it done.”
Fair Bluff Mayor Randy Britt said, “It was a very good meeting. I was surprised by the number of people who showed up. I think that North Carolina, South Carolina, and all the counties and municipalities who are involved feel this is very important. It’s vital that we work together to bring rail service back.”