Opportunity cloaked in petulance

For 15 years, UNC has lobbied to close Horace Williams Airport, but the tiny landing strip at the corner of Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and Estes Drive Extension has amazing staying power. Now, with the help of a petulant board of governors, UNC may get its wish.

Built in 1928 in what was then the outskirts of town, the airport in later years had been used most frequently by health-care providers with N.C. Area Health Education Centers to fly to rural areas of the state to treat patients with limited access to health care. The Chapel Hill Flying Club also had its base there, and several big donors to the university often flew in for sporting events, meetings and other functions.

As long as the airport stayed active, UNC could not proceed with developing Carolina North, a research campus and public/private partnership on the thousand or so acres bequeathed to UNC by the late philosophy professor Horace Williams.

UNC ended the flying club’s lease. Then it moved AHEC flights to RDU (reducing the time physicians could spend treating patients at remote clinics). And in 2005, the board of trustees gave permission to close the airport.

Planes kept taking off and landing throughout the master plan process. The recession hit before ground could be broken on Carolina North. The airport stayed open, no longer having a reason to close.

Then came the Donald Trump era, fertilizing long-dormant prejudices against race, religion, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation — basically, anyone who didn’t conform to the worldview of wealthy white Republicans. The N.C. General Assembly overhauled UNC’s BOG, weeding out Democrats and most of the women and people of color, replacing them with GOP good ol’ boys.

Carolina had far too many people and ideas the BOG members found frightening — including uppity women and people with accents and dark complexions who expected to be heard.

The BOG flailed in flurry, first against the law school — scrapping plans for a new building, reducing funding, closing teaching centers that helped the poor and disempowered, and undercutting its academic rating. Now it has threatened to move the UNC System headquarters out of Chapel Hill and close the airport used by major donors.

The BOG’s tantrum may have opened an opportunity for town and gown.

UNC and Chapel Hill had been considering a joint project that would enable the town to build a municipal services building on land owned by UNC across the road from the airport and adjacent to a working-class neighborhood. The new building would require clear-cutting the heavily wooded site that soaks up stormwater and offers some protection against flooding.

If the airport were to close, the building could be constructed on the already-cleared airport property. The site has water, sewer and electricity in place and plenty of impervious surface for parking. Construction costs would shrink; those who live nearby would be relieved; and the BOG could still thumb its out-of-joint nose at the big donors loyal to the university.

This sorry political cloud could have a silver lining after all.
— Nancy Oates

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  1. bart

     /  September 25, 2017

    “Then came the Donald Trump era, fertilizing long-dormant prejudices against race, religion, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation — basically, anyone who didn’t conform to the worldview of wealthy white Republicans. The N.C. General Assembly overhauled UNC’s BOG, weeding out Democrats and most of the women and people of color, replacing them with GOP good ol’ boys.

    Carolina had far too many people and ideas the BOG members found frightening — including uppity women and people with accents and dark complexions who expected to be heard.”

    So, I can’t really tell if you think the airport is an example of rich white people privilege (only rich white people can fly small aircraft) or whether closing it is an example of rich white people privilege (noble doctors fly out of there to help the poor). Of course, it’s not at all clear if rich white donors are OK because they donate to UNC-CH (presumably ONLY to the acceptable parts) or whether they aren’t (because they’re too rich and/or too white?).

    But either way, apparently it is the fault of the sitting president.

    Did it occur to you that perhaps all the UNC consolidation of power done here at Chapel Hill might just be bothersome to people who live elsewhere? Perhaps the folks in Greenville or attending Pembroke, ECSU or some other non-flagship-lesser-university-but-still-allowed-to-use-UNC-letters might value moving the HQ? Of course, that’s only if the HQ actually serves any other university than UNC-CH. I confess I don’t know whether that is true or not. No doubt other universities have an opinion.

    Or is what Chapel Hill decides the best because no one else is smart/moral/non-racist enough to have a say in a state-wide institution?

    Everyone knows UNC does what it wants, when it wants to do it. The airport exists now not because UNC decided it was the “right thing” to do but because for whatever reason, it could not do what it wanted at that moment. And I’d rather see the airport STAY. It’s one of the few things left that mark this town as a place for regular people instead of a food court / boutique Disney village.

    Airports and grass strips have existed since the Wright brother,s and small places like Horace-Williams give locals a chance to try out a flight or perhaps work toward a pilot’s license. It isn’t cheap, but it’s available to anyone.

    But then again, I’m confused. Which stance on this issue labels me a Trump, GOP, racist/bigot person? Just so we’re clear.

  2. plurimus

     /  September 25, 2017

    Bart, you are indeed everyman.I would have to see the evidence the general NC population is worse off because AHEC is operating out of a new hanger at RDU.

    Without the political preamble, Nancy’s point that the new municipal services building might be better sited on the Horace Williams tract seems logical.

  3. Nancy

     /  September 25, 2017

    Whether the BOG’s attempt to strangle the life out of UNC-CH comes from the school’s strong liberal agenda (suing the powerful to protect rights of the disenfranchised; opening its bathrooms to transgender individuals, etc.) or because the conservative majority (only one Democrat on the board) gets a thrill out of throwing its weight around, either way I trace it to Trump’s condoning bullying, racism & sexism.

    If the BOG closes the airport, the wealthy donors will find a way to cope, as did AHEC and the CH Flying Club. It’s mean-spirited, following the example of Trump. But if the BOG has the authority to close the airport, we might as well find some good in it, and that would be to locate the municipal services center on what would otherwise become a scar on the landscape, similar to all those malls that closed throughout the country a couple decades ago.

    Whether you want the airport open or closed doesn’t label you a bigot. I’m guessing the rich white donors who use the airport support the university because of its values of fair treatment to all humans and willingness to give a hand up to those who need it.

  4. a realist

     /  September 26, 2017

    I always saw the BOG as a privileged group. And while its sad to see the take downs of the schools of Poverty and Civil Rights, I’ve always viewed Carolina as a prestigious public university. Quality education is not a “liberal agenda”.

    Consider the School of Government, an incredibly impressive group of lawyers and professionals who advise on public policy, the business school is one of the best in the country, and the law school has produced many of the states finest lawyers, including those who currently serve in the legislature (left and right). Med School, journalism, music and more. All impressive academic centers that are not changing.

    The BOG is taking some interesting leaps toward strengthening the statewide university system. Moving admin closer to Raleigh and closing the airport could fit right in. It will likely ingratiate UNC with all those “rural counties” – but if it spreads the good, I’m all for it. Better educated communities just might produce better educated voters.

    If asked, I wonder if the BOG would have stopped DOLRT..

    I wish we could stop inserting politics when important policy is at stake. Politics aside, I’m with Plurimus and Nancy – the airport is a great site for a municipal service center. Would be even better if it was shared with Carrboro.

  5. Deborah Fulghieri

     /  September 27, 2017

    Part of UNC’s plan is to move the law school from Ridge Road to the airport site. Is the BOG going to withhold funding for that?

  6. Nancy

     /  September 27, 2017

    The state legislature, I believe, is the entity that pulled funding for the new law school. The law school will stay on Ridge Road. But if the NCGA continues to cut its funding, the law school won’t have the money to hire professors, and it won’t be able to attract as many students, so then it won’t have to worry about not having enough space.

  7. plurimus

     /  September 27, 2017

    My observation is the BoG is an entity that is swayed by special interests be they development, politics or sports.

    The BoG sway depending on which way the wind is blowing. The wind is clearly from the right currently. I suspect this is yet another artifact of gerrymandering. When it comes, the backlash will be significant and probably equally annoying.

    I was heartened to see that Holden Thorpe seems to be having great success at Washington University according to the Wall St Journal: I always thought he was a nice guy, and had a name that should have been the lead character in a Tom Wolfe novel. He seems to be greatly unburdened by not having division 1 sports teams. https://www.wsj.com/articles/biggest-surprises-in-the-wsj-the-college-rankings-1506467040

    “But Washington University in St. Louis, ranked 11th overall, came in first in spending, at $159,100 per student
    Provost Holden Thorp, the chief academic officer at Washington University in St. Louis, attributes some of the higher spending to small class sizes and an 8-to-1 student-to-faculty ratio.

    For generations, Washington University has shown that investing in our academics, in inspiring the leaders of tomorrow, is a most worthwhile endeavor and not just an ‘expense’ on a balance sheet,” Dr. Thorp said in a statement.”

  8. Bonnie Hauser

     /  September 28, 2017

    I don’t like the NCGA antics with education – but for the record, state funding accounts for less than 20% of UNC funding. The rest comes from tuition, grants, endowments, and yes – sports.

    Not sure why they are focused on 2011-2012 – but here’s what I could find. It looks like they like pinning costs to 2008 baselines. That helps to conflate impacts of the recession with politics. Other indicators like enrollment and academic performance might be helpful.


    I dont know whether or not to believe Spellings et al- but they are suggesting that their goal is to make the university more accessible and more affordable. Closing HWA seems like a reasonable action.