Today’s news on the airport authority

This morning, I announced that we would not ask the Board of Governors to create an airport authority. I’m posting my prepared remarks below. I was pleased that Orange County Commissioners Chair Valerie Foushee was there to

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support our decision. And it was also great to have Laura Streitfeld, Cliff Leath, Tom Schopler and Marilee McTigue there. They all made supportive comments and even clapped when I made the announcement.

Prepared remarks

I have decided to ask the UNC Board of Governors not to create an airport authority to identify a replacement site for Horace Williams Airport.

This has not been an easy decision … most of all because I made a pledge to our AHEC doctors. I had said that, short term, I was convinced that a MedAir move to RDU would be workable. But I also said that for the long-term, we owed it to our doctors to explore another alternative. At the time, I thought that an airport authority was the best approach. The county would have the zoning authority, and the siting and development of the airport would be in the hands of a public body that would operate transparently.

But increasingly, I have felt that the authority would be unable to accomplish what we had hoped. There is a great deal of distrust, not necessarily of the authority, but of the process by which it came to be. That distrust would likely extend to the authority when its members were appointed.

So, with all that in mind, I started calling some of the AHEC doctors. Those I spoke with told me they understood our eventual need to move airport operations to RDU and that it’s in the best interest of the University and our community not to form the authority.

I consulted with Speaker of the House Joe Hackney, and he agreed that this is the right approach. And I talked with the chair of the county commissioners, the mayor, President Bowles and our trustees, and they all concur.

We will continue to move forward on Carolina North. It is critical to the future of the University and the state of North Carolina. While we will keep Horace Williams Airport open as long as we can, to realize the full potential of Carolina North, we must close the airport.

When that happens, we will still need an airport. It’s essential for our AHEC program. But we have an acceptable option – RDU.

Whether Orange County wants and needs an airport should be widely and openly discussed. And the decision should be made by the county and its citizens.

15 Comments

  1. 2

    Kudos on making this decision, Chancellor Thorp. It can’t have been easy, but you made the right choice. I think this outcome strongly shows the value of UNC having leaders that are truly a part of the local community, and who are able to see the bigger picture of the symbiotic relationship between town and gown.

    The community is very impressed with you as a Chancellor. You’re certainly the best I’ve seen in the past 20 years as a student & alumn.

  2. 3
    Hillsborough Resident

    I, for one, had no problem with an airport out by Hillsborough. Sorry to see we won’t be getting one!

  3. 4

    Holden, this is quite encouraging. As you note, the community and the University deserves a wider and more open process in determining whether a regional facility makes sense. Thank you for stepping back, working with your critics and our elective folks to begin anew.

    The next step is to get the Airport authority legislation struck from the books, I hope you will lead the charge on that issue.

    A few loose ends. What is the status of the RDU site, are the monies allocated still back in the general fund? Does UNC Healthcare still plan to take delivery of the jets requiring a longer runway than HWA?

  4. 5
    Jose Quintero

    Congratulations, Chancellor Thorp, on your decision. I for one feel much better about the issue of transparency and UNC’s desire to work with the town.

    I do believe one further step should be taken, and that is to assure the citizens of Chapel Hill that the University will NOT attempt to keep Horace Williams airport where it is once construction on Carolina North has begun.

    There have already been some comments from private pilots and AOPA that this is indeed what may eventually happen. So in order to operate under good faith with the town from here on out, we would ask you to guarantee that AHEC’s future is indeed at RDU.

    Thanks again for your wisdom and keen ability to listen to those whose voices may not be as loud as others.

  5. 6
    Robby

    Good move Chancellor. I think it is very important for your great doctors to be able to reach the parts of this state that don’t have access to all of the health care benefits we have here in the triangle. But as close as RDU is, I don’t think that a new airport would be money well spent, especially in the current economy. If it was hours away to an airport of any significant size like RDU, it might be another story. It is worth the 30min drive to RDU or if an emergency, that is what helicoptors are for.

    Thanks!

  6. 7
    Buz Lloyd, Class of '71

    Thank you, Chancellor Thorp, for taking the lead in retracting the proposal for the development of the University’s airport in rural Orange County.

    I hope this change of strategy will permit you and UNC to (continue to?) exert some significant leadership in having some of the federal economic stimulus funding directed towards the development of the regional public transit system that could optimize access to RDU from UNC. Once in full operation, this system will be of even greater benefit to UNC given the eventual relocation of AHEC’s operations to RDU.

  7. 8
    Peter K.

    Well done, Chancellor!

    And I agree with Mr. Quintero above who asks that UNC guarantee it will move Horace Williams airport and NOT attempt to build Carolina North around it. Believe me, there are a number of people in town who firmly believe this is what the university plans to do.

    If this pledge isn’t made, I fear that distrust and suspicion will continue to be a cloud hanging over the entire CN project. And God knows, we need it to happen now more than ever.

    Thanks.

  8. 10
    Rob

    Thank you Chancellor Thorpe for stepping up and doing the correct thing.

    However, being a resident of southern Orange county, and one that would have had their life effected in a negative manner by an airport located in this area, I can tell you that until this bill is stricken from the books, the residents here will not trust UNC. Because until it is no longer valid, there still remains a strong possibility that one day when the outrage against this sneaky and sleazy bill subsides, you may change your mind and create the airport authority and snatch some poor folks land out from under them.

    Finish doing the right thing and push to get this bill stricken from the books so you and your university can gain back the trust of the community.

  9. 11
    Dave Marion

    I opposed this airport authority because of the underhanded and sneaky way it was implemented. Its biggest problem was that it excluded proper representation of the people most affected by the issue and established an overwhelming bias in favor of a special interest (UNC) that is literally unprecedented in the 43 cases of other airport authorities in NC that I was able to find via research on the NCGA Web site.
    Charlotte is the only case that I found where someone other than a city council or county board of commissioners was authorized to make an appointment to an airport authority board. In that one case, the Charlotte Regional Partnership, a non-profit economic development council, is authorized to make 2 out of 11 appointments to the Charlotte Airport Advisory Committee. (Also, the commanders of the USCG Station at Elizabeth City and the MCAS Cherry Point have non-voting honorary appointments to their respective community airport authorities.) That’s it; those are the ONLY exceptions I found. In every other case, only local county commissioners and/or city councils were granted the right to make appointments to a local airport authority. Those local government officials are there to represent us all equally.
    Finally, you concluded your official statement this morning with: “Whether Orange County wants and needs an airport should be widely and openly discussed. And the decision should be made by the county and its citizens.” Why then did you tell PRO representative Laura Streifeld that you would oppose repealing S1925 Part IV? As long as this travesty of legislation exists, this whole problem still exists. It MUST be repealed. If there is to be an airport authority in Orange Co. to “consider” the issue of a new airport, its members must be appointed ONLY by the government officials who are elected to represent us all – the Board of Commissioners and the town councils of Chapel Hill, Carrboro, and Hillsborough.

  10. 12
    Terry

    No doubt this means there will now be a full-court press by the-powers-that-be (including the legislature, AOPA, UNC’s board of trustees, AHEC, etc.) to expand Horace Williams airport and build the new campus around it.

    Unfortunately there’s little the town can do about it, other than refuse to negotiate further on rezoning the site until the airport has been shut down.

  11. 13
    Jose Quintero

    Chancellor Thorp:

    Judging from some of his quotes in local media, congressman Bill Faison is also an advocate of keeping Horace Williams airport right where it is. Do you agree with him?

  12. 14
    Holden

    Jose, we do not agree with Bill, and he and I have talked about that. We will close Horace Williams as soon as we are
    ready to build the law school.

  13. 15
    Terry

    Chancellor Thorp:

    Our major concern regarding AOPA is that the group doesn’t try to pull an end-run and attempt to sway the NC legislature to keep HWA as an operational airport and construct Carolina North around it; there has been talk about this possibility since the airport authority was nixed.

    Is it fair to ask that you AND the Board of Trustees assure the community that this will NOT happen?

  14. 16

    Thanks Holden for continuing to reaffirm the promise of HWA closure conditioned on the building of the Law School. I know that UNC believes the Law School is the most probable first candidate building (now 7 stories tall according to Roger!!!) but I assume that if the Innovation Center or some other component is built first that the same promise of closure pertains. Am I correct?

  15. 17
    Holden

    WillR and Terry, Thanks for your comments. The university has not changed our plan for Carolina North. We intend to build the law school as the first building, and we intend to close HWA before we begin
    construction.

    We hope to do this as soon as economic conditions allow. I can’t make promises about the actions of others, and Erskine can’t either. But I can promise
    this: if something changes, we will let the community know as soon as we know. I will post it right here at
    holden.unc.edu. Given the
    past history, I can understand why some people are still suspicious, but I hope recent events have provided the sense that we’re together on this.

    One other thing. You probably won’t hear much from us on the
    airport in the next while. That’s not because we’re secretly concocting some new plan. It’s because we are in the midst of one of the most
    profound economic crises Carolina has ever faced. If we don’t make the right choices
    right now, it will not be good for Chapel Hill, Carrboro or Orange County.

    Thanks for caring about our community so much. I do, too!

    Holden

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