As some of you probably know, the University of North Carolina was in the process of trying to establish an airport in rural Orange County . . . and the most likely sites were within two miles of my house. The airport was ostensibly to serve the university's AHEC program for flying doctors to underserved rural areas, but was actually a stealthy attempt of wealthy owners of private planes to have their own convenient airport for coming to Carolina sports events.
I am so happy to say, "was in the process," in the past tense. Today UNC Chancellor Holden Thorp held a press conference to announce that UNC would call off the creation of an airport authority, and instead relocate its AHEC program from Horace Williams Airport to RDU instead.
Phew. That was close.
So what made Thorp change his mind? His official statements were fairly opaque, referencing "a great deal of distrust . . . of the process by which [the airport authority] came to be" and that "it's in the best interest of the University and our community not to form the authority." But I can guess to some other factors:
Well-organized opposition. Two separate grassroots organizations, Protect Rural Orange (PRO) and Orange County Voice, quickly sprang up to oppose the airport plans. I went to one of the first public meetings of PRO, which drew hundreds of locals and TV news crew. The organizations petitioned every level of government and won strong support from the local press, who put out increasingly frequent editorials opposing the airport. Most importantly, the organizations incorporated and started raising money to put up a fight; they weren't going away any time soon.
Preliminary skirmishes. PRO put up a spirited fight against the County's placement of a waste transfer station in the same area in which the airport was most likely to be sited. When the county commissioners went forward with the plan anyway, the group filed a lawsuit to get an injunction to stop the transfer station. While PRO didn't win that particular fight, it may have shown the University how tough the opposition to an airport would be.
Powerful images. It's probably only coincidence, but it's interesting that Thorp made the announcement the same day that local photographer Jesse Kalisher opened an exhibit of photographs documenting the rural land and lifestyle that would be displaced by the proposed airport. I remember reading the story of one of the first politicians ever to be mocked by political cartoons, and he told his staff, "Get those pictures out of the papers! My constituents don't read – but they can look at pictures." I think Thorp started to realize just how bad the airport authority was going to look, once people see images of the land to be razed, and fourth-generation farmers losing their homes and livelihoods.
Bad economy. With the markets tanking and unemployment up, even the savviest politician will have a hard time explaining why we should spend $30 million to build a new airport instead of spending $2 million to build a new hanger at RDU, just so some doctors can shorten their drive to the airport by ten minutes. The fiction that building an airport would "stimulate economic growth" becomes harder to sustain when companies everywhere are pulling back instead of building.
Moral conviction. Maybe, just maybe, Thorp pulled the plug on the airport just because it was the right thing to do.
Whatever the reason, Chancellor Thorp, my family and I extend our heartfelt thanks to you.