Does the city of Detroit really need a study to conclude what should be obvious by now, roughly 15 years after commercial air service ended at Coleman A. Young Municipal Airport?

Probably not, from a purely business perspective. But we’re not talking about business so much as politics and the theoretical prestige attached to operating an airport just a few miles from downtown because, well, you can.

That’s why the city is exploring options for the 264-acre site. Have no illusions: old City Airport’s future is more likely to be in, say, becoming a light manufacturing complex or an autonomous-vehicle testing center than in general-aviation takeoffs and landings.

One of the challenges is persuading a majority of the City Council to abandon the notion of reviving commercial air service to the east side. The quickest way: finding a new use that brings tax-paying jobs to the site even as it relieves the city of an extraneous financial burden.

Repurposing the airport into a profit-making, tax-generating tract largely would pare total losses — expected to be nearly $2.2 million over the city’s next two fiscal years, The Detroit News reported Thursday. That underscores a harsh truth learned in Detroit’s historic bankruptcy.

Namely, there are things city leaders with limited resources should have the courage, and the wisdom, to stop doing because they can’t do them particularly well or within budget. Running an airport, or maintaining Belle Isle, may be among them.

The same goes for Wayne County, whose commissioners keep perpetuating the fiction that the county should end up being a better overseer of restarting the stalled county jail project than people who develop land and buildings for a living, i.e., Dan Gilbert’s team at Rock Ventures LLC.

Ever heard the economic term “comparative advantage”? Simply put, it holds that if a country can supply a good or service of better quality at a lower opportunity cost, it makes economic sense to buy the good or service instead of produce it more expensively at home.

The concept, roughly speaking, applies here. If Gilbert’s Rock Ventures can build a $420 million criminal justice complex for $300 million on East Forest, and redevelop the stalled Gratiot jail into a billion-dollar residential/office/stadium complex generating an estimated $2.39 billion in economic impact, what’s so hard to understand?

If an alternative use for the east-side airport site can reduce drag on an already tight city budget, or generate tax revenue for a cash-strapped city, shouldn’t a new usage trump a status quo that clearly has not improved with time?

Of course it should. It’s one thing for a public airport authority to oversee Detroit Metropolitan Airport with its 550 daily departures to destinations all over the world. It’s another for the city to absorb chronic losses at the old City Airport long after bankrupt ProAir disappeared around 2000.

These are teachable moments in post-Chapter 9 Detroit. My guess is that Mayor Mike Duggan’s development team well knows the old airport could contribute more to the city’s economic revitalization as a light manufacturing site than attempting to rejoin the aviation game.

That and you can bet the whispers from the county airport authority and its largest customer, Delta Air Lines Inc., would do their part to discourage a revival of anything that could be perceived (or actually be) a direct competitor for passengers and commercial service.

And County Executive Warren Evans has telegraphed his skepticism about the county again trying to oversee a jail project it badly bungled the first time around. Comparative advantage he understands; and when it comes to expertise overseeing a $300 million construction project, he says the county doesn’t have it.

In business, rationalizing what you do — and what you shouldn’t do — is a formula for improving both performance and results. In government, the goal is not to generate profits, or to maintain control, control, control. It’s to produce results for taxpayers.

If reviving the good ol’ days at City Airport, or relying on county oversight to build a new jail at the gateway to downtown, turn out to deliver the intended results, fine. But given the enthusiasm driving so much private investment across the city, I wouldn’t bet on it.

Better to harness that private capital in the service of public assets than to divert public resources and oversight from the business of providing basic services where they’re needed most. That’s what government is supposed to do.


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Daniel Howes’ column runs Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays. Follow him on Twitter @DanielHowes_TDN, listen to his Saturday podcasts, or catch him 3 and 10 p.m. Thursdays on Michigan Radio’s “Stateside,” 91.7 FM.

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