In the current wrangle over a proposed Orange County airport to replace Chapel Hill’s Horace Williams, facts have been buried under a mountain of speculation, assumption and rumor. That’s inevitable given the intense passions that new airports tend to spawn, and this one, which has been studied and debated for a decade, is no exception. But the reactions and counter-reactions to recent developments have a particularly acrid taste: motives have been questioned, trust eroded, minds closed.
The ill will serves no one and only distracts from an honest and thorough evaluation of the airport’s merits. UNC-Chapel Hill Chancellor Holden Thorp and other school officials, who insist that an airport is necessary for the continued vitality of the university, have recently tried to quell the rancor. But they have only themselves to blame for the inhospitable climate.
The discontent has been building since the legislature passed an appropriations bill in August that primarily allocated funds for capital improvement projects in the UNC system. A provision in the bill allowed the UNC Board of Governors to create an airport authority with the power to choose an airport site, condemn land, raise funds and ultimately build and operate an airport. The bill also mandates that a majority of the authority’s members be appointed by UNC.
That the legislation might be in the pipeline was no great surprise: UNC representatives had broached the subject in February at a meeting with Orange County officials. In attendance were Orange County commissioners Barry Jacobs and Valerie Foushee; County Manager Laura Blackmon; Kevin FitzGerald, a UNC administrator appointed by the university to oversee the board; local developer and UNC-Chapel Hill Board of Trustees chairman Roger Perry; and John Link, the former Orange County manager who had been hired by the university as a consultant. According to Jacobs, the county made several requests in advance of a bill, including a look at sample legislation that didn’t include the power of eminent domain and a list of possible airport sites. “They said, ‘OK, we’ll get it back to you,’ ” Jacobs recalls.
The next time the county heard about the matter, Jacobs says, was a phone call from a legislator who reported that the bill was already being considered. At that point, the county was forced into a reactive mode. “I was surprised, and not pleasantly,” Jacobs says. “I was disappointed, because we thought that we were in collaboration with a partner. It’s hard to enter in good faith into a situation where the deck is already stacked against you.”
FitzGerald recalls the meeting quite differently. “We actually did not talk about a bill,” he says. “We let them know about that as the bill was being introduced, and they were involved as the bill went through the legislature.” FitzGerald does acknowledge that the county had no input into the bill’s language. Asked if the county should have been involved, given that the airport will be a county facility, FitzGerald expresses doubt. “I don’t necessarily see why.”
The lack of county participation extends beyond the design of the bill. In May, aviation consulting firm Talbert & Bright issued an economic impact report commissioned by UNC that projected between $40 million and $53 million in annual economic benefits from a new Orange County airport. Though the county, the three towns within it and the university all have economic development offices, none were involved in drafting the report. The county didn’t see it until August, while the legislation was winding its way into law.
Shortly after the legislation was passed, Fitzgerald, Thorp, UNC School of Medicine Dean Bill Roper and other airport proponents began citing the report as evidence that it would be good for the county. “This is an economic engine,” state Rep. Bill Faison told The Chapel Hill News. Faison’s district includes part of Orange County, though he has expressed disdain for county commissioners and others who take a more measured approach to the airport. “If you can invest $50 million [to build the airport] and get that much back on an annual basis, you’d be crazy not do it.”
Yet even a cursory look at the report raises basic questions about its validity. It assumes that every dollar attributable to the airport would be a new dollar, and that the people who would use the airport wouldn’t otherwise visit Chapel Hill. “That’s fairly close to 100 percent wrong,” says Mitch Renkow, professor of agricultural and resource economics at N.C. State. Renkow, who has looked at many similar studies and is familiar with the methodology of economic impact analyses, calls the Talbert & Bright estimate “a silly number.”
To arrive at their $40 million-to-$53 million figure, consultants used data from a 2006 N.C. State study on the economic impact of airports in North Carolina and extrapolated the numbers for Orange County using averages of facilities in counties deemed demographically similar.
The N.C. State study included some odd assertions. For example, the Sanford-Lee County airport is listed as having an annual economic impact of a whopping $280 million, with 1,023 jobs directly attributable to the facility, which would constitute 7 percent of all county jobs. Sanford-Lee airport managers say the number of on-airport jobs is fewer than 30. Where the other 1,000 jobs come from is anyone’s guess, but Renkow says it’s a safe bet that the source is suspect. That’s just one of the report’s flaws. “I just think the numbers are woefully overstated,” he says.
To bolster its economic argument, the Talbert & Bright report cited six companies that use Horace Williams and for which an airport in Orange County is “very important” or “essential” to their business. Jeff Freilich, who owns one of those companies, Environmental Quality Control, disputes that assertion. Having an airport nearby is convenient and helpful, he says, but he has other options. “I can move my plane to Burlington, and I’m fine,” Freilich says.
Freilich doesn’t buy the economic logic. Nor does he want to be used by Talbert & Bright or anyone else to support it. “For an airport to get shoved down the throats of the citizens of Orange County with the argument that it’s going to be an economic engine,” he says, “that’s bullshit.”
Irrespective of the report’s dubious findings, the economic argument for the airport is a recent entry into the airport rationale sweepstakes. A 2005 study examining alternatives to Horace Williams, also prepared by Talbert & Bright, focused on the need for an airport to serve the School of Medicine’s Area Health Education Centers (AHEC) program, which flies UNC doctors and staff to regional medical centers and rural areas for training and treatment. UNC officials have consistently stated that AHEC is the primary driver of the airport plan, even though the 2005 study recommended relocating AHEC to Raleigh-Durham International rather than a new airport as the best option.
But the airport will have to be considerably bigger than AHEC’s operations would require to qualify for federal funding, a major concern since the 2005 study pegged construction costs at upward of $50 million. The rosy economic impact projections, on the other hand, can be used to justify a larger facility. FitzGerald allows that the funding issue plays into the airport equation along with AHEC and other university needs. “I think it’s probably a combination of both,” he says. “I guess the idea would be that it’s an important public investment, and the extent to which it could leverage federal funds is of high interest.”
The question of the siting of the airport has proven equally difficult to pin down. Thorp, Roper and FitzGerald insist that no locations are on the table, even though the 2005 Talbert & Bright study (which took almost three years to complete) evaluated and ranked nearly every site in Orange and Chatham counties that met federal requirements for a general aviation airport.
In an interview with The Chapel Hill News, Thorp called the study old and outdated, saying that “there’s lots of development that’s gone on between then and now.” It’s unclear what development he’s referring to, but if anything, that would restrict the number of possible sites not expand them. And at the February meeting, Jacobs says, FitzGerald and company said they had identified possible sites, but declined to reveal them. “They told us they did have sites, but now they’re backtracking,” Jacobs says.
Such shifts have fueled suspicions that UNC intends to build the airport regardless of the opinions of county officials and residents. Reassurances to the contrary are sounding increasingly hollow. Sources at the legislature say that Sen. Tony Rand, who is often in the thick of any maneuvers in Raleigh concerning UNC, tried to strip Orange County’s zoning authority from the bill. This would have removed one of the few potential obstacles in the airport’s path. The zoning authority was retained at the insistence of House Speaker and Orange County Rep. Joe Hackney.
The fact is, an airport in Orange County would be beneficial to UNC, and not just for AHEC. Whether as a recruiting tool for Carolina North, to facilitate visits with donors, or to attract intellectual and entrepreneurial talent, or even for the convenience of boosters flying in for football games, the airport would be an asset to the university on many levels.
And while the argument that what’s good for the university is good for Orange County may smack of arrogance, it’s an argument that is based in fact and must be hashed outwith equally legitimate viewpointsin the context of the airport debate. But the university has an obligation to conduct that debate transparently, and with all stakeholders. Despite repeated claims that the process will be inclusive and that no decisions have been reached, the evidence points in a different direction.