Friday, April 13, 2018

Coleman A. Young Municipal Airport (KDET) crumbles as City of Detroit rejects offers of millions

The City of Detroit recently turned down a $4-million offer from private investors to build a modern terminal and hangars at the long-neglected Coleman A. Young International Airport as Mayor Mike Duggan's team raised the idea of closing the airfield permanently.

The rejection of the offer from Avflight, the fixed-base operator at the east-side airfield still best known as Detroit City Airport, came amid complaints from airport advocates that the city is needlessly letting a potential asset deteriorate.

Among other signs of neglect, the city hasn't staffed a Detroit Fire Department station on airport grounds for many years, which prevents some business aircraft from landing there because of insurance concerns. Nor has the city applied for a variety of multimillion-dollar federal and state grants that could help pay for needed upgrades to runways.

The airport doesn't even have its own website, and the city does little or no marketing of the airfield.

Carl Muhs, president of Avflight, an Ann Arbor-based firm that operates multiple airports in the U.S. and Britain, said he offered in 2016 to spend up to $4 million at City Airport to build a new terminal and hangars to accommodate larger corporate jets, but only if the city granted Avflight the security of a multiyear lease.

The city for many years had not offered leases to tenant firms at the airport, keeping them on month-to-month status that could be revoked at any time.

“We had been working on a lease for quite a while and then got to the very end where it was due to be signed and it was pulled off the table,” Muhs said. “(The city) said, ‘We’re going to take another look at the airport and decide what direction we want to go in.’ So we’ve been on hold for quite a while out there."

Such moves fuel concerns for the airport's future. For against the hope and promise of a revitalized City Airport stands the allure of freeing up the airfield’s 264 acres for other uses, such as an industrial park, which Duggan has suggested might bring many more jobs to the city.

That possibility is now under study, and Duggan's team maintains that until a formal decision on the site's future is made, it made no sense to move ahead with the Avflight offer or other improvements.

Jed Howbert, Duggan’s group executive for Planning, Housing and Development, said the administration at this point is trying to gather facts for further discussion.

“It’s a big assembled piece of property in a city that doesn’t have a lot of them,” Howbert said in an interview. “The basic question we’re asking is, 'how do you maximize the benefit of the airport to the people of Detroit?' ”

Howbert said there are several options, including spending money to restore the airport in whole or part; closing the shorter of the airport’s two runways and using that land for other economic development; and closing the airport altogether and redeveloping the land.

“We want to get to a point where we have a common fact-based discussion on how those various scenarios compare to each other in terms of jobs, other benefits to the city, neighborhood impact, cost to execute them,” Howbert said. “It should be something you can summarize on one sheet of paper and then go talk about them.”

But Howbert sounded skeptical of the airport’s future.

“The reality is that it loses money, there’s not many jobs on-site, and it’s not very actively used by planes that are based there," he said. "So it’s hard to make an argument that, as an asset today, that’s it’s delivering commensurate with what it should be, given how much land it is in the city.”

Because of City Airport’s problems, flight operations have steadily declined in recent years, from 45,233 takeoffs and landings in 2014 to 37,264 last year, Federal Aviation Administration data reports show.

The city says the airport loses about $1 million a year, though about half of that loss stems from a water drainage fee that the city charges. Advocates for the airport point out that many types of public infrastructure lose money but deliver broader economic benefits.

Federal complications

Yet given how difficult it is to actually close an airport — the Federal Aviation Authority can take years, if not decades, to approve a closure — advocates say the city ought to move ahead with a vigorous airport revitalization plan now.

Among others, the Detroit City Council has expressed its support for revitalizing the airport many times in recent years.

"I can say that I have made it clear I DO NOT SUPPORT CLOSING THE AIRPORT!!!," Council Member Scott Benson told the Free Press in an e-mail. "I will also continue to advocate for investment in this City asset, as it can and will become a huge economic development engine for the City and region once we (the City) start to make even the basic investments to keep it in a state of good repair."

The nonprofit Coleman A. Young International Airport Education Association, consisting of community advocates, corporate executives, recreational flyers and other fans of the airport, believes significant new business for City Airport is just waiting on some signal from Duggan’s team that the city will prioritize airport revitalization.

“The thing is, we know we are 100% certain that at the end of the day this airport will be saved because there will not be a better choice,” said Dave Tarrant, the group's executive director. “We just have to get the political forces to reach that conclusion.”

The airport was a pioneer in big-city airfields when it opened in 1927, and it remained thronged with commercial airline passengers as recently as about 20 years ago. But today it remains badly underused, its landscape dotted with derelict structures.

Its main hangars date to the 1940s and remain too small to house today’s largest corporate jets. Of about 130 smaller so-called T-hangers — garage-like structures that house small private aircraft — fewer than half are in use and dozens have fallen into such disrepair as to be unusable.

Needed maintenance has been neglected for years. At one spot on the perimeter of the airfield, a broken-down airplane has settled in place for so many years that trees have grown up within inches of it. The airport’s two runways remain in active use but are overdue for maintenance work.

Quick fixes available

Advocates of revitalizating City Airport point to low-cost fixes that could almost instantly unlock the airport's hidden value. Some of the most helpful of the changes would cost the city almost nothing. One is to offer long-term leases to airport tenants who rent hangars and other facilities.

Longer leases: Detroit refuses to give any of the private firms operating at the airport anything but month-to-month status. Firms like Avflight, which fuels planes, cuts grass, plows snow and does other operational chores, say they are willing to pump new investment into facilities but cannot as long as the city denies them the stability of a long-term lease.

Air Eagle, a firm that operates two business-class planes from the airport, also expresses frustration over the city's lack of willingness to consider longer leases. Michael Zabkiewicz, general manager and chief pilot of Air Eagle, said it’s not possible to risk spending millions of dollars on facilities that they could be told to vacate on short notice.

“You know, it’s to the point now where it’s almost a joke,” Zabkiewicz said. “There’s no point to even bother to ask because we already know what the answer is going to be. … It’s one of those things where, why put the effort into something that will never happen?”

By comparison, the Jackson County Airport in Jackson grants firms up to 40-year leases at the airport, as well as the right to sublease their space.

“You just have to make yourself attractive to people,” said Kent Maurer, the airport manager there. 

Detroit’s City Council passed a resolution earlier this year asking the Duggan administration to consider granting longer term leases to operators like Avflight and Air Eagle. So far, the administration hasn’t done so.

Tarrant of the nonprofit airport educational association said the lack of longer term leases reflects the city's lack of commitment to the airport's future.

“Just by telling the world it’s open for business and will be sustained, by itself, plus the long-term leases, those two acts would turn everything around right now,” Tarrant said. “It’s just management will and commitment. That’s what’s so frustrating about this. We know how to fix it, it can be fixed, the resources are there to fix it. It’s just management will and commitment.”

Federal grants: The highest cost estimate for revitalizing the airport is $83 million for restoring commercial airline service — the price tag for upgrading runways, building new terminal and parking facilities and other improvements. But even if the city went that far, almost none of that cost would be borne by the City of Detroit itself.

The FAA, as part of its role in maintaining a national airport network, would pay most of the cost through grants. The State of Michigan would pay part of the remainder. 

The Jackson County Airport last year completed rebuilding its runways for $49 million. But the federal government paid $39 million of that and Michigan paid another $2.6 million. Of the roughly $7.7 million Jackson County had to contribute, almost all of that went to relocate a landfill to make room for the new runway.

Duggan’s office recently released a report from an aviation consultant called GRA Inc., based near Philadelphia, on the likely cost of revitalizing City Airport. Even that GRA report noted that almost all the cost of upgrades would be borne by federal or state agencies.

One scenario outlined in the GRA report looked at spending up to $50 million on new facilities; it estimated that Detroit would have to cover just $2.8 million of that.

The FAA and state grants are competitive and not always awarded when first applied for. But Mauer of the Jackson Airport said that good plans will be funded eventually. Detroit has not aggressively pursued such grants for City Airport, angering supporters.

Marketing: City Airport doesn’t even have its own website, nor does the city market the airport as a gateway.

By contrast, the Jackson County Airport operates a website that offers a wealth of easy-to-find information, including phone numbers and e-mails for airport personnel, consumer tips about car rentals, technical data for pilots such as radio frequencies in use by the airport, postings of job openings, photographs of award winners and volunteers, calendar of events, financial information and more.

Maurer said Jackson County leaders understand the value of the airport near the city’s center and support it.

“They’re not building any new airports almost anywhere, and if you’re going to build them you’re not going to build them anywhere close to a populated area,” he said.

Muhs of the Avflight operation echoed that.

“Years ago, train stations were the front door to a community. Now, it’s airports,” he said. And in the future, as drone delivery and other airborne mobility options flourish, “it’s going to be that much more important that those airports exist.”

Another possible model is Lunken Field in Cincinnati, which, like City Airport, first operated in the 1920s and for many years served as Cincinnati's main airport. Today, commercial airline traffic flies from the much larger Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport, but private and corporate aircraft still use Lunken.

In 2009, the Ultimate Air Shuttle began flying from Lunken with a flight to Chicago's Midway Airport, and has since added shuttle flights to New York, Charlotte and Cleveland.

Firefighting and education

The Detroit Fire Department used to operate a small station on airport grounds with two trucks to deal with runway crashes. But the city pulled firefighters out of that station many years ago, electing to depend on fire equipment coming from nearby stations in case of a runway emergency.

But that arrangement has more than safety implications. Some business flyers who may otherwise use City Airport are prevented from doing so by their insurers, who insist the planes be based at a field with on-site fire and rescue protection.

“The guys with the big corporate planes, they may want to land there, but they’re not allowed to,” said Keith Newell, director of business planning for the Coleman A. Young International Airport Educational Association.

Deputy Fire Commissioner Dave Fornell said plans are under way to restaff the station on airport grounds later this year, but only for an eight-hour shift each day. Even now, he said, adequate protection is provided by the off-site fire units based at the nearby Fire Academy.

But Michael Nevin, president of the Detroit Fire Fighters Association, said an eight-hour shift doesn’t go nearly far enough to ensure safety at an airport that could be used around the clock.

"That place should be manned 24/7," he said. "It ridiculous that they closed it. But now that we're seeing a spike in air traffic and the city coming back, they need to reinvest in that fire house and train people and reboot the airport division."

From the 1940s until 2013, Detroit Public Schools operated the Benjamin Davis Aerospace Technical High School immediately adjacent to the airport. Training courses at the school once gave graduating seniors an FAA certificate as an aircraft technician — a ticket to a high-paying career.

But DPS abandoned the school in 2013, transferring classes to the Golightly Career and Technical Center off East Jefferson Avenue on the far east side. In the process of transferring classes, DPS lost much of the equipment and material needed for the curriculum. Unable to offer the FAA-required courses, the school voluntarily surrendered its FAA certificate in 2014.

Lawrence Millben, the first African-American youth to graduate from the high school and a retired colonel in the Air Force, is among many who want to see the school returned to its former site adjacent to the airport and FAA certification to train technicians returned.

"We are working diligently to get it back to the airport," he said. "Kids coming out of Davis Aerospace (could) come out with an FAA certification that would allow them to make $80,000 a year to start. Why are we taking that away from the kids of Detroit when we know we can make them productive, tax-paying citizens? Skills in that area are nationally needed."

Private-public partnership?

Perhaps the biggest potential change would come if Duggan spins off direct control of the airport from the city’s small Department of Aviation to a nonprofit public authority or conservancy. In similar ways, Cobo Center, Eastern Market and other entities owned by the city are now operated by nonprofit boards and professional management.

Such spin-offs often prove controversial, such as the state’s takeover of Belle Isle during the city’s bankruptcy period. But they often prove effective.

The once-failing Cobo, Eastern Market and other spin-offs saw immediate improvements once they were put into new management structures. Cobo, owned by the city but run since 2009 by a regional authority, completed a nearly $300-million expansion and upgrade that thoroughly updated the aging facility.

And Eastern Market likewise pumped millions of philanthropic dollars into renovating its market sheds and added a host of new vendors and programs once spun off from direct city control in 2006. Even Belle Isle, now operated as a state park, showed marked improvements in maintenance and recreational offerings under its new management.

Such public authorities offer access to funding sources unavailable to the city itself. And management devoted solely to that one operation can often focus attention and efforts, not get lost in the larger municipal bureaucracy.

Duggan has spoken against such spin-offs, arguing that he cannot control outcomes without having direct control of a function. But numerous airports in the U.S., including Detroit Metro and Jackson County Airport, are managed by some type of airport authority. Many advocates for City Airport said a new management structure is needed to turn around the airport’s declining fortunes.

Job opportunities?

When Duggan’s staffers talk about possibly closing the airport, they cite the recent success of the city’s I-94 Industrial Park. That roughly 200-acre site, a former east-side residential neighborhood cleared out in the 1990s, recently filled up with new industrial users, including the Flex-N-Gate auto supplier, which is bringing hundreds of jobs to the city. Duggan’s team believes City Airport land would find new users quickly.

“If we can deliver large site-ready sites that have infrastructure, there’s been proven demand over the last couple of years to build that, and the jobs numbers are pretty attractive,” Howbert said.

Against that possibility lies the value that a revitalized City Airport might bring. As Detroit’s comeback plans advance and as downtown grows as a hub serving the corporate, sports and entertainment fields, an airfield just minutes away could prove valuable.

Corporate executives like John Nicholson, son of PVS Chemicals President and CEO James Nicholson, supports revitalizing the airport.

“We feel like it’s an underutilized asset with such potential being 6 miles from downtown,” he said. “It’d just be a shame to see it disappear and turn into factory sites when it has such potential.”

And the airport already looms large for Macomb County and other east-side communities. Muhs of the Avflight fixed-base operation said at least a quarter of the air traffic using City Airport today carries business travelers heading to Warren for the General Motors Tech Center or the U.S. Army Tank-automotive and Armaments Command, or TACOM.

Without City Airport, those business travelers would have to use another airport more distant.

If Duggan were to declare his intention to keep the airport open and restore it, that “would be the best thing we could hear,” Muhs said.

What's next?

If Duggan and his team do decide to close the airport and convert the 260 acres to an industrial park, they may find that easier said than done. The federal government, through the FAA, takes years to study potential airport closings and is reluctant to approve them. Each airfield represents a link in the nationwide network of safety, and, once gone, often cannot be replaced.

The FAA recently agreed to close the Santa Monica, Calif., airport in 2028 — but only after about 30 years of debate and discord. In 1994, Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley announced he would close the lakefront Meigs Field downtown; almost 10 years later, Daley, frustrated by seemingly endless delays, ordered city crews to destroy the runway by bulldozing large gouges in it in the middle of the night.

Duggan aide Howbert said he expects to have the next phase of the fact-finding report done by fall, with a discussion to follow.

“We’ll look at any good idea that maximizes the benefit to Detroiters,” he said. “Airports get handled in a whole lot of different ways in other cities and states. If someone has a great idea that unlocks one of these scenarios, we are absolutely going to look at and listen to that idea.”

Original article can be found here ➤

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