Thorp: UNC Mistaken in Seeking Airport Authority

Last year, UNC pushed the N.C. General Assembly hard for permission to establish an airport authority, which ultimately would build in rural Orange County a replacement for Horace Williams Airport. The University got that permission, but now it is backing away from the airport business.

Chancellor Holden Thorp ’86 announced Friday that UNC would ask the UNC System Board of Governors to not create an airport authority. The decision came after months of loud criticism from landowners who feared an airport would compromise the character of quiet, farm-dominated southwest Orange.

Thorp acknowledged that a University-initiated effort to get a replacement airport was a mistake and that any future endeavor should be “widely and openly discussed. And the decision should be made by the county and its citizens. We ended up surprising people with the legislation far more than we should have.”

He said he had spoken to several medical people who work with the UNC-based Area Health Education Centers, whose planes are close by at Horace Williams when they need to travel to medically underserved areas of the state. After Horace Williams is closed, AHEC will rely on a facility the University is planning to build at Raleigh-Durham International Airport.

Thorp said those responses ranged from very supportive to “supportive but disappointed.” AHEC officials have insisted that an airport close by was important to their operations and that RDU was too far for them to drive. AHEC flies medical personnel to regular clinics across the state, but its planes are not used for emergencies.

Asked what the response was from private airplane owners, Thorp said, “There are some disappointed people out there.”

The closing date for Horace Williams is dependent on UNC’s need for the land it occupies on what’s now known as the Carolina North campus. Closing has appeared to be imminent on a couple of occasions, but now Carolina North is on hold pending town of Chapel Hill zoning decisions and the economic downturn, which is delaying work on a planned Innovation Center.

Thorp said that at one time he thought that seeking a new airport site through an airport authority was the best approach but that he changed his mind. “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.”

Of the Carolina North project, he said, “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.”

Friday’s news conference was attended by residents of southwest Orange, who celebrated the decision. Valerie Foushee, chair of the county commissioners, also attended and told Thorp, “We appreciate your careful thought. We believe this is the right thing for Orange County.”

Thorp said he had support in his decision from UNC System President Erskine Bowles ’67 and from Joe Hackney ’67, the speaker of the N.C. House of Representatives, who lives in Chapel Hill.

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