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Study: $83M brings back City Airport passenger service

Christine Ferretti
The Detroit News

Detroit — Commercial passenger service could return to the city’s financially troubled municipal airport, but it would require an $83 million overhaul, a new report shows.

Detroit is studying possible upgrades to Coleman A. Young airport, which hasn’t had regular commercial service in more than 15 years.

The investment scenario is the most costly among several outlined in the first phase of a study commissioned by the city for the future use of the Coleman A. Young International Airport.

The 40-page report, produced by a team of consultants and airport experts, found at a minimum the airport needs tens of millions in upgrades for basic operations as it tries to compete in southeast Michigan’s ailing general aviation market.

The east side airport, just over five miles from downtown, is the region’s second busiest and the subject of an exhaustive study to determine its best future use.

The last master plan for the property commonly known as City Airport was conducted in the early 1990s, but for the first time in recent history, an analysis is expected to extend beyond aviation.

Commercial passenger service could return to the city’s financially troubled Coleman A. Young International Airport, but it would require an $83 million overhaul, a new report shows.

The initial study findings delve into the local aviation market, financial and structural conditions at Detroit’s 264-acre airport as well as scenarios for its rejuvenation. Investment proposals range from $23 million to maintain the airport in a state of “good repair,” to $83 million to bring back commercial passenger service. Projects could be funded with a combination of federal and state grants as well as city funds.

The airport hasn’t had regular service from a commercial airline in more than 15 years and, for at least the last several has been propped up financially by Detroit’s general fund.

Jed Howbert, executive director of Detroit’s jobs and economy team, said the study details a stagnant regional market in general aviation and massive investments for Detroit to better compete.

“If that aviation market is not growing much — which it isn’t — the only way to get more business at our airport is to take it from someone else’s airport. Part of what we’re going to have to figure out is, is that a realistic thing to go do? What do we need to do in order to make that happen and how would it work?” Howbert said Friday.

“You are talking tens of millions of dollars to get to a point of a state of good repair of the current facilities, let alone something more than that.”

The east side airport, just over five miles from downtown, is the region’s second busiest and currently the subject of an exhaustive study to determine its best future use.

The next phases of the study will evaluate the economic impact of proposed scenarios, identify potential partners and non-aviation uses.

At this stage, Howbert said, it’s too early to know which path may be best.

But Mayor Mike Duggan has made clear he’ll back whatever will bring Detroit the most jobs.

The airport is one of the city’s largest remaining contiguous parcels, but only a couple hundred people are employed there. That’s not good enough for the mayor, who said he believes it could employ about 5,000 as an industrial park.

“The question I have to ask is, is there a prospect with aviation functions to grow city airport from 200 employees up to into the thousands? That’s what we’re looking for,” Duggan told The News in a January interview. “If the answer is yes, we want to pursue it for aviation purposes.”

But if the analysis determines otherwise, Duggan said, the city will have to switch gears.

The prime real estate has been offered in recent months as leverage in the city’s attempts to lure investment from online retail giants Amazon and China-based counterpart, Alibaba.

The city, in an October pitch to land an Amazon headquarters, touted its airport as an asset to support the Seattle-based retailer in “research, testing, aviation and other capacities.” Amazon later narrowed its list of finalist cities, eliminating Detroit from the running.

The airport also hasn’t gone unnoticed by powerful entrepreneurs such as Alibaba founder Jack Ma, according to Duggan.

During a meeting with Ma over the prospect of Alibaba adding a distribution center in America, Ma said his primary interest in Detroit was “what about at City Airport?” Duggan said. The company did not respond to a request for comment about its level of interest in the airport.

The airport is the region’s second busiest, yet is being propped up financially by Detroit’s general fund.

Eric Dueweke, a lecturer in urban and regional planning at the University of Michigan, said he doesn’t believe airport supporters would quibble with the idea of creating more jobs.

“I think the difference of opinion might be that people who are currently vested in the airport believe that potentially more jobs could be attracted by keeping it as an airport rather than decommissioning it for some other use,” said Dueweke, an east side resident whose urban planning students compiled an analysis of the airport in 2011 with options for its revitalization.

At least 11 airlines have started passenger service at the airport since 1975 with the hopes of attracting passengers based on its proximity to the downtown, the consultant report notes.

None served the airport for any significant length of time, it says, due to “weak passenger demand, short runways ... and airline financial difficulties.”

Although Duggan has said he doesn’t see a return to commercial aviation as a realistic option for the site, it’s among the hopes that have been expressed by some on the City Council. Councilman Scott Benson is among them, but he has acknowledged the move would likely be far off.

The airport has two asphalt runways: a 5,090-foot main runway and a crosswind runway of 4,025 feet. To accommodate 737s, the longest runway would need to be 6,400 feet.

Benson crafted a resolution in the fall urging the administration to support long-term leases at the airport, saying they could drive investment at the site that’s suffered from years of disinvestment. It was approved by the council last month.

Benson, in a Friday statement, said the report reaffirms his view that the airport’s negative impact on Detroit’s general fund is the result of poor asset management by the city.

“As stated in the report, DET could realize a significant increase in revenue and break even, or run in the black, if the city simply invested in key areas that are important to general aviation users, such as security measures and aesthetics,” he said.

Should it be considered for non-aviation use, any changes for the city-owned and operated airport would ultimately require approval of Detroit’s council. It’s also federally obligated, requiring the Federal Aviation Administration to evaluate any request to close the airport.

Preliminary estimates show Detroit has received $33.2 million in federal and state grants for the airport over nearly 20 years. The city may have to repay certain funding awards if the site is converted for other use.

Opening up the site for uses beyond aviation is something Benson said he opposes.

“Once you lose the airport, it’s gone forever,” he said. “I believe efforts and energy should be spent looking at how to best make this a world-class airport.”