Politics & Government

Columbia airport leaders wasting money on ads, luxury suite at USC games, senator says

Columbia Metropolitan Airport
Columbia Metropolitan Airport tdominick@thestate.com

State Sen. Dick Harpootlian blasted Columbia Metropolitan Airport’s board Thursday for spending nearly $457,000 on a marketing agreement that gives it free tickets to University of South Carolina sports games and a luxury suite at Colonial Life Arena.

In a three-page letter to the chairman of the Richland County Legislative Delegation, the Columbia Democrat accused the airport’s legislatively appointed board of misspending money. He asked board members be made to explain themselves at a meeting next month or face removal for “neglect, misconduct or malfeasance.”

“I am greatly concerned by this use of public resources as it appears to be a breach of faith by the Airport Commission with the citizens and taxpayers who have entrusted the board as stewards of the airport’s resources,” the freshman senator wrote in his letter to state Rep. Jimmy Bales, D-Richland.

The letter comes a month after Harpootlian questioned the board about its USC-related spending at its January meeting. Board members defended the three-year marketing deal, saying it grants the airport exclusive advertising rights with Gamecocks sports, and an arena suite to recruit and entertain potential business partners.

Harpootlian says that is baloney.

Fliers pick their airport based on price and convenience, the former prosecutor wrote. He said the airport would be better off spending its ad budget to buy online ads on travel sites like Kayak and Orbitz.

“I have spoken with individuals, in confidence, who report that the primary use of the Colonial Life Arena hospitality box is entertainment of the Airport Commission board and their friends and family — not economic development,” Harpootlian wrote, adding he has filed an open records request for documents to prove that is the case.

Rep. Bales questioned how the marketing deal helps the airport.

“It’s a waste of money,” the Lower Richland Democrat said. “I’m not for wasting money.”

Bales said he is open to having the airport board attend the legislative delegation’s meeting next month and answer questions about the deal.

The letter is the latest product of Harpootlian’s scrutiny of the special Richland County boards that are appointed by state lawmakers.

Last week, the two-time state Democratic Party chairman attended a Richland County elections board meeting. While there, he called out a board member for failing to take elections classes required by law to hold her post. That resulted in a heated, minutes-long exchange between Harpootlian and board member Shirley Mack.

Republican Gov. Henry McMaster fired the entire board the next day.

Now, Harpootlian is turning his attention to the Richland-Lexington Airport District, the board that oversees Columbia Metropolitan Airport.

The airport is self-sufficient. It gets no state or local tax dollars, but its board is publicly appointed. Five of its board members are appointed by Richland County lawmakers. Another five are picked by Lexington County lawmakers, and two are chosen by Columbia City Council.

Harpootlian said the board’s chairman, James Whitmire of Richland County, has been on the board 17 years — nine years longer than allowed under state law — and should be replaced.

In his letter to Bales, Harpootlian also criticized the board’s decision to give Richland County lawmakers free parking at the airport. He returned his parking pass at the airport board’s meeting last month.

“No one on our legislative delegation commutes to the Statehouse via airplane, so our receipt and the use of these so-called VIP passes are purely personal in nature,” Harpootlian wrote, adding lawmakers who keep the passes should disclose their value on required ethics forms.

The airport board’s spending has been scrutinized before.

In 2016, The Nerve, an investigative website, wrote the airport’s three-year, $422,000 marketing deal with Gamecock Sports Properties had turned the luxury suite into a “playground” for board members and Richland County lawmakers.

That deal was renewed — for $457,000 — in May 2017. The deal gives the airport internet ads, signage at Gamecocks games, ads in game programs, mentions on Gamecocks radio programs, season tickets for football games, and a suite in the Colonial Life Arena for all Gamecocks men’s and women’s basketball games.

The deal accounts for about a fifth of the airport’s marketing budget, airport spokeswoman Kim Jamieson told The State.

The suite costs the airport about $30,000 a year — plus up to $20,800 for food and drinks.

“Having the suite provides CAE and the commission a distinct advantage,” Jamieson said. “It provides the airport a great venue to bring airlines and other out-of-town business partners. Having the suite offers them a unique and semi-exclusive experience, which sets CAE apart from a competing city that would simply purchase tickets to a game.”

Jamieson said the suite has been used to host representatives of American Airlines, United Airlines, Delta, Air Wisconsin, UPS and local travel agents.

State Rep. Kirkman Finlay, R-Richland, is curious about how the suite is used.

“As far as buying booths and seats or whatever, it is incumbent on any governmental agency that does something like that to go and demonstrate the benefits, and it needs to be clear-cut,” he said.

Avery G. Wilks is The State’s senior S.C. State House and politics reporter. He was named the 2018 S.C. Journalist of the Year by the South Carolina Press Association. He grew up in Chester, S.C., and graduated from the University of South Carolina’s top-ranked Honors College in 2015.