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The future of the University’s planned research park may not be resolved until the N.C. General Assembly makes a decision on the future of Horace Williams Airport.
The Chapel Hill Town Council has informed UNC officials it would be “cautious” with allocating the town’s time and money toward approval of the University’s plans for Carolina North until legislators decide what to do with the airport.
Chancellor James Moeser ordered the airport closed in 2002, but the General Assembly overruled and told the University to keep it open while a legislative commission studies the needs of the N.C. Area Health Education Centers.
AHEC, based at UNC Hospitals, transports medical personnel to serve more than 15,000 patients across the state and takes faculty and staff to teaching programs statewide. AHEC has six planes that operate from the airport’s base.
AHEC officials say moving their program to another airport, such as RDU International between Raleigh and Durham, could take five to 10 years to complete. Traffic congestion on I-40 also would make it difficult for many AHEC doctors to participate, and the priority given to commercial air travel also would be a frequent cause of delay in aircraft departures. AHEC makes more than 1,000 flights a year.
While the airport issue is resolved, the town could elect to review plans for Carolina North, which UNC would like to develop for a mix of University-related scientific research, offices, homes and shops. It is reluctant to move ahead, however, and that could delay work on the 975-acre site.
AHEC Director Thomas Bacon ’78 (DRPH) says that as long as a local alternative is found, his group will not be inconvenienced. “We need to continue to plan for finding an alternative airport while continuing to plan for Carolina North,” Bacon said.
But Bacon prefers finding a smaller airport nearby rather than moving operations to RDU. He said it is more difficult to deal with larger airports.
Jonathan Howes ’61 (MRP), a special assistant to Moeser and a former mayor of Chapel Hill, said there is no easy answer to finding another airport as convenient as Horace Williams.
“Getting an airport that is close to the hospital and the medical school is highly desirable,” Howes said. “But looking at existing airports, none are really satisfactory or as close as Horace Williams.”
Howes said the University hopes to make another presentation on Carolina North before the Chapel Hill town council in early May.
Vice Chancellor Nancy Suttenfield said that as alternatives to the Horace Williams Airport are considered, AHEC’s needs will be examined along with requirements of topography, proximity of incompatible land uses, and the interests of the county and local government authorities and citizens.
“We will not close Horace Williams Airport until we have identified a viable alternative for AHEC MedAir operations,” Suttenfield said. “Because AHEC’s outreach and Carolina North’s importance to the state’s economic future both represent enormous contributions to the quality of life of the people of our state, we intend to move as rapidly as possible.”