North Carolina Airport Gets One-Year Reprieve

Aug. 14--CHAPEL HILL -- The Horace Williams Airport will remain open for one more year as UNC continues working on a plan to move the university's medical air program.

A provision in the recently approved state budget allows the airport to remain open until the end of the General Assembly's next session, in the summer of 2006. Then the airport will close, allowing UNC to begin developing the site for its Carolina North project.

In the meantime, UNC must figure out what to do with the medical air portion of the Area Health Education Centers program, which flies doctors, pharmacists and other medical personnel from Chapel Hill across the state to treat patients and conduct training for health care workers.

A long study of potential new airport sites found recently that AHEC's best option is a move to Raleigh-Durham International Airport; university officials are working on doing just that.

Moving to RDU may not please medical personnel who have to drive further than the quick trip to the Horace Williams air field in order to fly off across the state, but it remains the best, most viable choice, UNC officials say.

"By process of elimination, that really is the only viable option, outside of investing tens of millions of dollars that nobody has," said Nancy Suttenfield, UNC's vice chancellor for finance and administration.

The news that the airport would remain open another year came as a surprise to several airport workers outside the landing strip on Friday.

"Nobody's told us anything about it," one of the men working at the airport said.

"We're usually the last ones to know."

The airport has long been a matter of debate in Chapel Hill.

UNC Chancellor James Moeser has sought to close the airfield, since it sits on the flattest -- and thus most easily developed -- chunk of the nearly 1,000-acre Horace Williams property.

UNC is moving ahead with its massive Carolina North development plan for about a quarter of that land, a project that calls for a technology park meshing university research with private industry. It will also have a residential and retail component.

The airport's closing was politically dicey, however, because of strong support for the AHEC program, which serves rural parts of the state that would otherwise not have access to top-flight medical care.

Nelson Schwab, chairman of UNC's Board of Trustees, said he's pleased to see some sort of deadline set for the airport.

"It's kind of a linchpin to the development of that whole property," he said.

"This gives us that resolution, and the timing is fine. This at least gives us a green light to begin planning."