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Thorp cancels airport effort

Horace Williams Airport from above. Chancellor Holden Thorp’s decision means the airport will stay open at least until Carolina North construction starts. Photo by Robert Dickson.By Kirk Ross
Staff Writer

Chapel Hill — Saying he was concerned about the amount of mistrust surrounding the university’s intentions to build a new airport, UNC-Chapel Hill Chancellor Holden Thorp canceled plans to ask the UNC Board of Governors to approve an airport authority.

Speaking at a Friday morning briefing for the press and leaders of a coalition opposed to the airport, Thorp said that UNC Health Care’s Medical Air operations would move to Raleigh Durham International Airport and that Horace Williams Airport would close once construction was ready to begin for the new UNC Law School, which is planned for a location near the airport runway.

Thorp said that when he took office he thought using the airport authority was the right way to develop plans for the airport and that recently the university and the county were beginning to collaborate on naming members.

He changed his mind, he said, because of the growing concern of residents and distrust raised by airport opponents.

“There’s just too much distrust — not of the authority, because they haven’t been named yet — but because of the way the authority came to be,” Thorp said at the briefing.

He said he read press accounts, comments and posts on OrangePolitics and reviewed the websites of groups critical of the airport and the legislation. He said that after reviewing the concerns, including those pertaining to federal funding and rules for airport facilities, with staff lawyers and planners, he concluded that RDU would be the best option for the Area Health Education Centers program.

He did not rule out pursuing an airport in Orange County in the future, but said the county would be fully involved in the process and that the university would approach the planning in a collaborative spirit.

Thorp acknowledged that the legislation took many residents of Orange County by surprise, which ratcheted up ill will toward the idea.

“I can promise you that if we do something big that affects the county, we won’t use the same strategy that the Baltimore Colts used when they moved to Indianapolis,” he said.

Tom Schopler, a member of Preserve Rural Orange and a vocal opponent of the airport, attended the briefing.

“We appreciate this direction,” he told the chancellor. “It does represent the university that we all know and love. I think that’s the right way to go.”

Valerie Foushee, chair of the Orange County board of commissioners, also attended the briefing. She applauded the decision and said she appreciated in particular the chancellor’s statement that should the possibility of an airport arise in Orange County again it should be widely and openly discussed.

Thorp said the toughest part of the decision was conferring with doctors from UNC Health Care with clinics connected to the Area Health Education Centers. In legislative hearings on the closure of Horace Williams last year, several AHEC doctors said they could loose valuable clinic time if they had to fly out of RDU.

Thorp said he had discussed his decision with pediatrics department chair Dr. Bill Henry and some of the others who testified at the hearing. Their reactions ranged “from being totalaly supportive to being supportive but disappointed,” Thorp said.

Thorp said he reviewed the decision with town and county leaders as well as UNC President Erskine Bowles, North Carolina House speaker Joe Hackney and members of the UNC-Chapel Hill Board of Trustees. All supported the decision, he said.

In a statement released through his office Wednesday, Bowles said he believed that Thorp “did exactly the right thing” and that he was consulted ahead of time and participated in the formulation of the decision.

Roger Perry, chair of the board of trustees, said that a new airport is still a possibility but that there is no timeline for when it might happen. He said it would be up to the chancellor to decide when building a new airport would be appropriate.

Perry said the opposition to the authority caught university officials off guard. The reaction to the authority legislation, he said, “was surprising to us.”


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