Published: Oct 05, 2008 09:21 AM
Modified: Oct 05, 2008 09:21 AM
UNC, in its effort to build a new airport in Orange County, might want to borrow a page from the U.S. House of Representatives, which last week took a mulligan on the economic bailout package.
The university has gotten off on the wrong foot on the airport project, at least in the way it has introduced it to local governments and residents. A do-over wouldn't be a bad idea.
In order to build the planned Carolina North research campus, UNC will have to close its existing airstrip, Horace Williams Airport, which occupies part of the site.
The university wants to replace Horace Williams with a new, larger airport elsewhere in the county. UNC has gotten approval from the state legislature to form an airport authority, a 15-member group that will conduct the search for a suitable site. Eight members of the authority -- a majority -- will come from the university and its health care system. The legislation says that once a site is found, the authority can take possession of it by the power of eminent domain.
The has caught local officials and residents by surprise, and a lot of them aren't happy about it.
The university didn't consult with, or even formally inform, the county commissioners about the bill until after it was already approved.
University officials have assured the public that no site has yet been chosen and that there will be plenty of opportunity for public input.
But residents in the White Cross area are well aware that in 2005 a consultant hired by UNC put White Cross at the top of its rankings of possible sites. Many of those folks are furious about the prospect of jets taking off and landing in their neck of the woods, not to mention the possibility of being booted off their land to make way for the airport.
Most important, the university hasn't yet made a persuasive case that a new airport is needed in Orange County, especially since Raleigh-Durham International Airport is just 20 minutes away.
UNC says it needs a new, beefed-up airport in order to continue the Area Health Education Centers (AHEC) program, which allows medical school faculty and students to provide patient care and training throughout the state.
But the same 2005 report that listed the White Cross area as a potential site also said RDU would be an appropriate home for AHEC in the short term. If RDU is suitable in the short term, why not in the long term? There might be a good answer, but if so the university hasn't shared it.
The newest rationale presented by UNC is that a new airport would be an economic development engine for the county, capable of reaping $40 to $53 million annually. But since when is it the university's job to launch countywide economic development initiatives --without even consulting with the county?
UNC's handling has generated suspicion and opposition and right from the start. It may turn out that a new airport somewhere in Orange County would be a good thing for both the university and the county. But we need more than Carolina has shown so far before we're ready to buy that.
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