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City exploring more corporate aviation, industrial use for Detroit airport’s future

The city of Detroit is considering a plan that would transform the underused Coleman A. Young International Airport property for somewhere more than $100 million.

A report by city contractor Avion Solutions Group LLC obtained by Crain’s describes a series of proposals the city wants to further explore that are aimed at making the airport that has been plagued by disrepair and operational losses into a revenue-generating airport shifted more toward corporate use.

Ideas include redeveloping a portion of the property for separate industrial use, getting rid of a smaller runway and absorbing vacant land for construction of new airport infrastructure.

The Detroit News first reported on the potential plan.

The concepts in Avion’s report are part of a multi-phase planning process under Federal Aviation Administration reporting requirements, said Bryan Amann, chief legal counsel in capital and infrastructure for the city of Detroit.

Amann called the report a “first blush” that could be part of an airport layout plan expected to be submitted this fall to the FAA and Michigan Department of Transportation. The plan establishes a “spectrum of undertakings” the airport could feasibly implement on a “five-year road map,” he said.

“Based on what survives their review, we would then undertake an intense community planning and engagement process,” as well as further studies, Amann said. “A lot of things get thrown on walls and many of them don’t survive. They’re simply in the scope of things we want to explore.”

Mayor Mike Duggan was present at a January meeting where Avion presented its Redevelopment and Modernization Program report to MDOT and regional FAA officials, Amann said.

“We’ve looked at an awful lot of options, but I’m not gonna comment on anything until we have a plan and the FAA obviously can’t react to anything until the plan is formally submitted,” Duggan said during an event Wednesday at Rouge Park on the city’s west side to announce a $5 million investment by Huntington Bank. “If we’re gonna operate this as an airport, we’re gonna need a huge amount of improvement, but the FAA can’t fund the improvements until there’s an approved plan. So our next step is to get the city and the FAA in agreement on the future use of that airport and then that could potentially unlock several million dollars in funds to build the airport in the long term.”

Yearslong process

If the city submits the next section of its yearslong airport layout plan this fall, as expected, that action could move along a process that’s been years in the making at the 92-year-old city airport.

In 2017, the city solicited ideas from developers about how the on 264-acre airfield could be used for nonaviation purposes. But in a move that signaled a commitment to the property as an airport, the city said in March that it planned to invest $4 million to replace the main runway.

Avion’s report throws a vision into the ring that would try to do both. It would grow the east-side airport to 374 acres, positioning it to meet increasing needs for business and corporate aviation amid Detroit’s nascent revitalization. But it would mean ridding the airfield of the shorter of its two runways.

The plan proposes closing the 3,700-foot-long Runway 7/25 to make 86 acres of airport property available for transfer to the city and reuse for industrial development. That runway’s setup means it isn’t likely to be extended, and with its current length it serves smaller aircrafts and is used about 10 percent of available time.

“As the aircraft fleet mix continues to change to corporate aviation, the use of Runway 7-25 can be expected to decrease,” the report said.

Parts of the airport property are “high priority” for industrial reuse because of their position next to the airport and rail lines, the report said, especially amid Detroit’s increasing need for industrial land.

The city would then give the airport 196 acres to the west — mostly vacant residential — in exchange, possibly for a new taxiway, corporate terminal complex and aeronautic training center. Development of that acreage over eight years or so could cost as much as $123 million and could employ 1,605, according to estimates in the report. The airport would likely seek FAA Airport Improvement Program grants to fund part of the work.

Other sections of the plan propose renovating the 5,090-foot-long Runway 15/33 to meet FAA design standards and improve safety, updating buildings and demolishing and rebuilding 1940s hangars.

An overall cost estimate was not given as a capital improvement plan has not been be drafted.

“The status quo for (the airport) is not sustainable. If nothing is done … the airport will not be able to fulfill its role as a regional airport,” the report said.

What are best uses?

Beverly Kindle-Walker, executive director of the nonprofit Friends of Detroit City Airport, said she wanted to see a finalized plan before commenting on specifics. But she said she is “definitely not in support of this land being used for anything other than direct, aviation-related. If it’s a company that’s aviation-related (using some of the repurposed 86 acres), that would make sense.”

She also said the airport still has a strong base of small-scale users, and doesn’t want to see individual airplane owners or associations such as the nonprofit Black Pilots of America “edged out” in favor of corporate users.

The city of Detroit has been studying for years how to best use the site that hasn’t had commercial passenger airline service since 2000 and has been operating in the red.

Its total number of yearly aircraft operations dropped around 70 percent between 1998 and 2017, according to FAA data included in the Avion report. And a critical audit report released in June revealed past failures in lease management and facility maintenance at the airport, as well as lost leasing revenue. The Airport Department that operates Detroit’s aviation facilities, with the city airport as its main holding, recorded revenue of $1,559,811 in fiscal 2018 on expenditures of $2,276,671 for a loss of $716,861.

Also, under FAA rules that limit consultant contracts to five years, the city had to seek another consultant after Avion’s contract expired in June for airport planning, construction administration and architectural and engineering design, according to a request for qualifications advertisement. The request for bids turned up six candidates and the city has selected a finalist that still needs to be approved by City Council when it returns from recess the first week of September.

 

Posted By: Crain’s Detroit Business on August 20, 2019.  For more information, please click here to read the source article.

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