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By Mark Marcoplos

Holden Thorp's Leadership on the Airport Issue

By Mark Marcoplos Posted September 21, 2012 at 2:54 pm

In 2008, a covert plan to site an airport in rural Orange County came to light. In the back rooms of the State Legislature, at gatherings of wealthy UNC alumni, and even in former Chancellor Moeser’s office, a plan had been hatched to locate an airport outside of Chapel Hill that would replace the Horace Williams Airport.

The process successfully avoided citizen input and traditional democratic mechanisms to the point where several sites, primarily scattered across southwest Orange County, had been mapped and ranked for suitability.

The wealthy crafters of this scheme, many of whom were pilots or plane owners hoping for their own backyard airport, were using the UNC Area Health Education Center’s (AHEC) medical air operations as a Trojan horse. The key talking point was that the health educators from UNC would not participate in the AHEC program if they did not have an airport located close to campus and the vaunted program would begin its decline.

The obvious solution to the eventual closing of Horace William Airport, AHEC’s host airport, was to base their flying operations at Raleigh-Durham Airport (RDU). This was portrayed by the backers of a new airport to be unpalatable to the AHEC participants. As a quick aside, since AHEC moved its operations to RDU, the program has actually grown more successful.

In the summer of 2008, the Chapel Hill News published an article detailing the involvement of local business leaders with former Chancellor Moeser in promoting and raising funds for the purpose of siting an airport in Orange County.  This was concrete proof that UNC had gone beyond its declared mission as an educational institution.

Meanwhile Holden Thorp, the new Chancellor,, was becoming aware of the history and suspect origins of this plan. His first communication was to state that the process would start over from scratch, ostensibly to turn it into a fair process.

The citizens of rural Orange County recognized that this was impossible, akin to stuffing smoke back into a test tube. They continued to inform the public and Chancellor Thorp of the corrupt nature of this initiative.
To his everlasting credit, Chancellor Thorp figured it out and realized that neither the University nor he, in his very early days as Chancellor, would benefit from the legacy that this tainted scheme would leave.

In early January of 2009, he held a press conference and declared the UNC-led airport search to be dead. Citizens across the county realized that he was a unique leader who had the courage to counter powerful interests to protect the reputation of the University and the bonds of community in Orange County.
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