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Land around Metro has growth potential

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AIRPORT DEVELOPMENT: Land around Metro has growth potential

Pinnacle Aeropark seen as catalyst but its neighbors object

October 6, 2004

BY JEWEL GOPWANI

FREE PRESS BUSINESS WRITER

Despite the planes parked outside, the true economic potential of Detroit Metropolitan Airport's McNamara Terminal remains on land, development experts said Tuesday.

Not all the airport's neighbors would agree.

With its shops, jobs and light rail, the terminal is one piece in what developers call an aerotropolis -- a concept that aims to use the land around airports for office, retail and entertainment purposes. Southeastern Michigan could make strides in creating just that if Wayne County can start work on its long-delayed Pinnacle Aeropark, which straddled two county administrations and met with years of litigation.

The plan gained national attention during the Airport Cities Conference & Exhibition at the terminal's Westin Detroit Metropolitan Airport this week, where airline and airport officials from around the world discussed development in and around airports.

"Airports have taken virtually all of the functions of cities," said John Kasarda, director of the Kenan Institute of Private Enterprise at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Kasarda studied the land south of the airport, slated to become part of Pinnacle Aeropark, and the land between Metro and Willow Run airports for development.

"This county has a remarkable opportunity given the available land that can be developed," he said.

Wayne County is raising $7.5 million to start work on infrastructure for 150 acres south of Metro Airport. County officials expect that work to usher the way for 1,250 acres for office space, light industrial projects, a hotel, conference center and some type of amenity, possibly a golf course.

Construction should start in the next year, said Mulugetta Birru, Wayne County's executive director of economic development.

The project's planning, which dates to the late 1990s, spilled from former County Executive Ed McNamara's administration, with the county encountering delays in obtaining land from local property owners, who didn't like the idea of their land being used for private businesses.

Wayne County officials said they will work around about 50 acres in land ownership gaps after the Michigan Supreme Court ruled in August that the county cannot condemn the property of about a dozen landowners to make room for the project.

"I'm hoping that eventually the owners will work with us to make them a part of the development," said Birru, adding that it would be as stakeholders.

That's unlikely to Lela Ward, 64, of Romulus.

Ward, who sued to keep her home, said she isn't fazed by the prospect of office parks and hotels being built around her home.

"They can do whatever they feel like doing as long as they leave us alone," she said.

Birru, who headed Pittsburgh's Urban Redevelopment Authority until earlier this year, wouldn't specify, but said the county is meeting with a company it hopes will anchor the project.

After one makes a commitment, Birru expects others will follow suit, filling the rest of the 150-acre site.

But the initial tenant will be critical, Kasarda said.

The county also plans to meet with officials in Romulus and Huron Township in the next few weeks about the plan.

For Romulus it will mean that land that once was deemed unbuildable will generate tax dollars, said Tim Keyes, Romulus' economic development director.

"The real key is for everybody to get together, sit down and as a group develop a concept plan and move forward," Keyes said.

The entire Pinnacle project, which has no timeline, is part of an even broader vision for developing 25,000 acres between Metro and Willow Run airports.

"Hopefully that's the seed. I'm hoping that really starts the movement toward thinking big," Birru said.

Contact JEWEL GOPWANI at 313-223-4550 or [email protected]

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