TO THE EDITOR:
Talk of replacing Horace Williams Airport with a new airport worries some Orange County residents. We understand the natural questions. Has a site already been chosen? Where? Will it be in my back yard?
There is no site chosen — despite persistent rumors circulating in the community to the contrary based on a dated 2005 study. We're just starting a process what will include the goal of finding a site and the opportunity for community input through a new airport authority.
First some background familiar to longtime residents. For decades the University's Horace Williams Airport has improved the lives of North Carolinians as the base for Medical Air Operations (MedAir) which supports the Area Health Education Centers program headquartered in the School of Medicine. AHEC takes faculty and students across the state to provide patient care and to teach other students and professionals.
Horace Williams Airport occupies an extremely valuable piece of property owned by the University that's at the heart of our plans for developing Carolina North a new research and academic campus. And while AHEC is just as important as ever in the University's public service and engagement efforts the current airport isn't the right place to base that program any longer. Because Chapel Hill has grown up around the airport we've been required for safety reasons to limit its use.
We're committed to keeping the airport open until its continued operation would impede development at Carolina North. The trustee-approved Innovation Center — now under review by the town — will be the first building at Carolina North. If airport operations would delay occupying the Innovation Center we will close the airport.
Then MedAir will move to a new hangar to be built at Raleigh-Durham International Airport. That will ensure no interruption of AHEC services around the state.
Long term we believe a new general aviation airport is important to the future of AHEC the University and the economic success of Orange County. We need a new convenient airport for the University UNC Health Care and the surrounding community.
A recent study done for the UNC Foundation Inc. by engineering and planning consultant Talbert & Bright estimates that a new airport in Orange County would have a positive economic impact ranging between $40 million and $53 million annually not counting tax revenue (considerably more than the current Horace Williams Airport about $10 million in economic value based on a separate study two years ago). A new airport could also support and enhance AHEC's future operations and that's an important consideration for us because of the University's mission of serving the state.
The UNC system's Board of Governors was authorized by the legislature to create an airport authority to assemble the information and resources needed to locate build and operate a new airport in Orange County.
Kevin FitzGerald executive associate dean for finance and administration in the School of Medicine is leading the joint efforts of the University and UNC Health Care System to start the airport authority. His first task is to oversee the organization of the 15-member authority. Under the legislation eight members will be appointed by the UNC Board of Governors three by the Orange County Board of Commissioners two by municipalities one by the recommendation of the Speaker of the State House of Representatives and one on the recommendation of the President Pro Tempore of the State Senate. Our target date for appointing the authority members is January 2009.
When it's formed the new airport authority will conduct its own study to assess needs and identify potential airport sites.
Even with a site identified after appropriate community input we expect considerable challenges in securing support from funding sources — including the state and federal government — and addressing a host of other operational environmental and safety issues. We expect this process will take several years to complete.
For now our focus is on the first step: the successful launch of the airport authority that will include provisions for citizens to share feedback suggestions and concerns.
Chancellor of the University of North Carolina at
Vice Chancellor for Medical Affairs
Dean of the School of Medicine
Chief Executive Officer of the UNC Health Care System
Editor's note: The length rule was waived for this letter.