NC Friends of Horace Williams Airport
PO Box 33877, Charlotte, NC 28233
February 28, 2008
Innovation Center Proposed for Carolina North Would Close Airport and Damage AHEC Program, Counter to NC House Committee Direction
UNC- Chapel Hill’s plan to construct a new University business incubation center adjacent to the site of the University’s Horace Williams Airport would violate FAA airport obstruction guidelines, compromising the viability of the airport, which UNC wishes to close. In fact, the NC House Appropriations Committee on Education has told the University to maintain the airport until another Orange County airport can be sited and constructed, but the University has not acknowledged that fact to the Chapel Hill Town Council, which received a formal presentation from UNC on the proposed “Innovation C enter” January 23.
The proposal would be built closer to the northern edge of Horace Williams’ east-west runway than previous uses of the land parcel. The proposed location would place the building in the obstruction-free area required for instrument approach procedures. The effect of this would be to reduce the utility of the airport and thus require its closure as soon as the building is occupied (sometime in late 2008 or early 2009).
UNC represents that it is pursuing a search for an alternative site for a new airport in Orange County and working with County Commi ssioners to locate such a site. The University is, at the same time, budgeting for and planning a new AHEC air operations hangar at RDU Airport to which its aircraft would be moved upon completion. That hangar has received local zoning approval but construction has not yet begun.
While the new-airport concept is a laudable goal, NCFHWA does not believe that UNC truly intends to site a new airport in Orange County because of the cost and time to build of such a project. NCFHWA believes that UNC intends only to soften long-term opposition to airport closure by talking “new airport afterward”. In fact, a new Orange County airport would cost $25-60 million and is impractical. UNC’s Trustees formally decided the same in 2005. The end result, if UNC’s renowned AHEC program is moved to RDU and the airport is closed, would be no airport for the County, a tragedy given the need and the superlative history of Horace Williams. It is the second-most historically-significant airport in NC (after First Flight Airport at Kill Devil Hill). Southern Orange County and the western Triangle badly need more air transport access, not less.
UNC doctors provide medical care to citizens around the State through outreach clinics and hospitals as part of the AHEC (Area Health Education Centers) program. Transportation of the doctors operates from Chapel Hill’s Horace Williams Airport. This important facility is on the endangered species list because UNC-Chapel Hill administrators want to close the airport and use the 85-acre airport property to begin construction of their new 250-acre research campus known as Carolina North. UNC has studied options which would preserve the airport on the Carolina North tract, a significant benefit within and enhancement of the planned campus. Indeed, its initial Carolina North consulting firm recommended airport preservation just this way.
Several UNC AHEC doctors who fly from the airport facility testified last June before the NC House subcommittee. Each said the number of patients they see would be substantially reduced should they be unable to get to a home-base airport as quickly as they do today. Doctors further said they could not be as many places as they are now able and each cited patient care deficiencies which would result.
Beyond the direct loss of health care services, the dollar loss to UNC Hospitals would be enormous. Calculations of UNC Hospitals annual billings to patients referred from AHEC clinics served by the air operations group in 2005 were well beyond $90 million. Physicians who testified before the House committee are among the most frequent air service users. They cited probable reduction in the 25% range in the services they could provide if they were required to drive to RDU for air transport. The dollar impact from such attrition ought to be all that’s needed for the Chancellor and UNC Trustees to fully evaluate such impact prior to any airport closure consideration. Instead, the University administration decided, without public discussion nor analysis of the potential UNC Health Care System losses, to site the first phase of Carolina North on the land parcel where the existing airport stands.
The University has further lobbied the General Assembly to allow airport closure without such evaluation of AHEC impact. It is inconsistent at best and genuinely poor stewardship of University resources at worst for UNC to spend State dollar resources to destroy an asset as central to UNC and UNC Hospitals’ mission as Horace Williams Airport with no transparent evaluation of resulting likely damage to its own renowned healthcare outreach programs. NCFHWA asks that UNC-CH Trustees and their Citizens of for Higher Education PAC more carefully consider the losses which we know will result should the airport close.
It is noteworthy that many General Assembly members have continued to reject this proposal despite UNC administration efforts to secure approval for airport closure. The University is expected to ask the General Assembly during its short session for $30 million in planning and infrastructure money for Carolina North, intended for construction of the Innovation Center. We urge legislators to exercise the same wisdom they have shown to date with respect to the airport and decline to fund any such project which would tend to diminish the benefits of such a crucial State asset.
For more information , contact NCFHWA steering committee member Chris Hudson at (704)338-9161 or email@example.com
NC Friends of Horace Williams Airport Steering Committee
Larry Ford Hayesville Mike Hierholzer Durham Chris Hudson Charlotte Todd Huvard Clayton Ed McKinnon Southport John Shearer Chapel Hill