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Detroit City Airport Fails Potential

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Razor wire surrounds a rental car parking lot near Detroit City Airport. Abandoned buildings and burned-out homes also surround the airfield, but some believe the airport can be a catalyst for the city's economic growth.


Kenyetta Crawford talks about the garbage-filled alleys and abandoned buildings near Detroit City Airport. "People are scared to come to this area," she says.




Detroit airport fails potential

Passenger terminal closed, air cargo down

By Joel J. Smith / The Detroit News

DETROIT -- Five years ago, Detroit City Airport prospered with 429,000 airline passengers, 2,800 tons of air cargo and more than 150,000 takeoffs and landings.

Today, the east side airport is a shadow of itself. The passenger terminal is closed. Annual air cargo is less than 450 tons and airport operations have been cut by 55 percent.

The demise of the airport is especially troubling considering airport consultants and development experts believe it has the potential to spur economic revival in the city's hardscrabble Gratiot and Conner area.

Instead, the area around City Airport is deteriorating to a point where onetime visitors now say they are afraid to come. And those familiar with the two-runway airport contend the city government has failed to make necessary improvements and done little to attract the aviation community back to the facility.

"If the city would clean up the area around the airport, there would be a lot more business customers flying in," said Greta Mahon, general manager of Michigan Aviation, an aircraft maintenance service at the airport. "The area scares people away. We have people fly in here and ask us if it's safe to leave the airport grounds."

Detroit City Airport Manager Delbert Brown refused repeated attempts by The Detroit News to interview him about the airport and surrounding area. Numerous attempts to speak with officials in Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick's office regarding the airport also were unsuccessful.

A look around the airport finds fences topped with barbed wire and razor ribbon, surrounded by abandoned buildings and burned-out homes.

"It scares me and I'm used to it," Mahon said. "Because of the poor conditions of the surrounding areas, I work from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., so I'm not here too early or too late."

Many believe City Airport could be a catalyst for economic growth in the city. The area already has rail access and Interstate 94 nearby.

"There are a lot of opportunities for economic development in that Gratiot/Conner corridor that the city could seize," said Jay C. Juergensen, president of Juergensen & Associates, community and economic development experts. "Economic development generally follows modes of transportation.

"The city and community has not dealt with the asset it has in that airport. If the city were to get its arms around the industrial opportunity in that corridor, then I think the airport would be a vital link to that."

Airport officials have done little to promote the facility for air traffic and business.

Since 1975, there has been 11 different airlines offering passenger service there. All have left because of a lack of passengers. Some airlines have contended that travelers were afraid to park in the area.

Pro Air was the last passenger service to pull out of City Airport in 2000 after filing for bankruptcy protection. Efforts to attract another carrier have been unsuccessful.

The aviation community has left the airport in droves. The airplane hangers along Conner are only half-filled with planes. The remainder are used to store city vehicles and equipment.

Ten years ago, all the hangars were occupied by aviation-related businesses. Planes used to line the fence by the hangars. Now none park there.

One airport consultant who visited the facility recently said it could be a "jewel" for promoting economic growth.

"I maintain you could turn that airport into the center of a total revitalization of that whole Conner area," said Michael Boyd, president of the Boyd Group, aviation consultants in Evergreen, Colo. "There are industrial areas around there that can be turned around.

"But they don't need a five-year plan," he said. "They need a five-month plan with a bulldozer to take down the crack houses and vacant buildings in the area."

Boyd pointed out that the airport is close to downtown Detroit, which includes the city's three casinos, its General Motors Corp. headquarters and new professional football and baseball stadiums. And with the National Football League's Super Bowl coming to the city in 2006, downtown development is on the rise.

"Detroit City Airport is one of those things that nobody appreciates," Boyd said.

Boyd and others believe that even without a commercial passenger service, City Airport could be built into a viable air transportation center similar to Oakland County's International Airport in Waterford Township.

Scores of businesses have popped up around that airport along with numerous aviation businesses on the airport grounds. Major corporations such as GM and DaimlerChrysler AG keep their airplane fleet at the Oakland airport.

"Obviously airports are economic engines for development," said Darryl Daniels, an architect and management consultant for aviation facilities in Ann Arbor. "You can see all the revitalization around places like Metro Airport."

Business owners around City Airport want to see the area cleaned up and the airport prosper.

Tom Smeltzer, owner of White Tower Industrial Laundry on Gratiot near the airport, also owns a private plane that's kept at the facility. He blames the city for dragging its feet in fixing up the area and the airport.

"I think there is a mixed feeling among the city administration about what they want to do," Smeltzer said. "The city seems to be looking for the home run rather than taking what is available.

"Everything is here for economic growth. But how do you make it happen? No one has come up with a good answer."

Even longtime residents of the airport area see the potential economic growth. But perhaps more than others, they realize why people are afraid to come to the area.

"If the airport and the area were fixed up, it would bring more people out," said 27-year-old Kenyetta Crawford, who has lived in the shadow of Runway 7/25 her entire life. "Abandoned homes, drugs and prostitution are awful. People are scared to come to this area."


Greta Mahon, Michigan Aviation general manager, an aircraft maintenance service at the airport, said more business customers would come if the city cleaned up the area.

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