CHAPEL HILL -- A new Orange County airport could have an economic impact of up to $53 million a year, or more than four times the amount Horace Williams Airport pumps into the community, according to a consultant's study. The May 2008 report by Talbert & Bright based its findings on surveys of airport managers, tenants and major users and calls the estimated impact of $40 million to $53 million conservative. Some tenants and airport users did not complete the spreadsheet surveys, and the consultants did not try to fill in missing information. The report was given to the Orange County Board of Commissioners, which has not discussed it, Chairman Barry Jacobs said. The county has expressed concern about the formation of a UNC-led airport authority. The 15-member panel will be looking for a site to replace Horace Williams Airport and will be able to take land by eminent domain.A community group met near a previously identified site in White Cross Sunday night, although UNC officials say the authority will have to start the search all over again. The university says it must close Horace Williams to make room for the planned Carolina North campus off Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard.
Restrictions on Horace Williams Airport, imposed mostly in response to neighbors' concerns, have limited its use, the consultant's report says.Jet aircraft must be on official university business in order to use the airport. Practice approaches and landings must have prior permission. Recreational and training flights are prohibited from 9 p.m. to 6 a.m., among other restrictions.In addition to the rules, activity at the airport is limited by the facility itself. The runway is 4,005 feet long with only 3,275 feet available for landing because of tree obstructions off the property, the report says. There is only enough hangar space for seven to 10 aircraft, and all those spaces are filled. The ramp area for transient airport users is so small that pilots have to park their aircraft on the grass. There is no aircraft maintenance on site. "Horace Williams does not have many of the features (such as minimum runway length) recommended for an airport that can support business jet aircraft," the report says. In addition, "several major employers in Orange County have indicated ... that they are not comfortable using Horace Williams now due to the limited facilities available, but would be supportive of and utilize a new 'unconstrained' general aviation airport in Orange County."
The airport economic potential came up at an Orange County development briefing sponsored by the Chapel Hill-Carrboro Chamber of Commerce.County Planning Director Craig Benedict and Economic Development Director Bradly Broadwell said a new airport could help recruit new jobs and industry to the area. On Monday, Jacobs, the commissioners chairman, repeated his concern that UNC has not been fully informing the county of its plans. "We have yet to have the first formal communication from anyone at the university," he said. "It's like the county, local officials, are an afterthought."In public discussions, university leaders have talked about the airport's role in serving the Area Health Education Centers, the program that flies medical professionals to underserved areas of the state. The consultant's report says AHEC has ordered two Diamond D-Jets that require a 5,000 foot runway and approaches not currently available at Horace Williams.Jacobs said the emphasis on economic development is new."Personally I think it was a way to sell it," he said. "Not to the commissioners, because we weren't consulted, but to somebody." "It also begs the question of why the university's in charge of it. I have asked that question and no one has given me a good answer. It's really kind of flabbergasting."Kevin Fitzgerald, executive associate dean at the School of Medicine, said Horace Williams has always been an asset to Orange County beyond UNC.He said he, trustees chairman Roger Perry and former county manager John Link "had a discussion" with Jacobs, Commissioner Valerie Foushee and current County Manager Laura Blackmon around the time the airport authority bill was being introduced in the legislature. The university hired Link to help in the planning."We did not consult with them on the specifics of the airport authority, but we commented on the possibility," FitzGerald said. "It was limited communication with them on the formation of the airport authority." The authority will have 15 members. Four will be appointed by the university's board of trustees, four by the UNC Health Care System, two by the legislature, three by the county and two by the county's municipalities.An early version called for eight members to be appointed by the health care system. The make-up changed after UNC system President Erskine Bowles and UNC Chancellor Holden Thorp decided to split the university's members between the university and health care system.