Detroit's Old City Airport Crumbles; Can It Be Revived?

A draft report commissioned by the city suggests that the Coleman A. Young International Airport should remain just that — a general aviation airport — rather than funneling large chunks of it off to developers for new industry and jobs.

Rather, between $23.2 million and $60 million should be spent on improvements ranging from the bare minimum to bring the airport up to current standards to improvements that would attract commercial carrier service back to the airport after a nearly two-decade hiatus, according to the draft report.

That portion of the report by Pennsylvania-based GRA Inc. recommending improvements over redevelopment, however, has been removed from the final version, submitted to Detroit about six weeks later on Jan. 25, according to copies of both versions of the report obtained by Crain's.

That's because, the city says, GRA submitted its report with information that wasn't within the scope of its $74,000 contract to prepare it — by including a recommendation for how the city should proceed rather than simply evaluating the current circumstances of the 91-year-old airport. It also included information on future redevelopment potential that was also scrapped from the final version.

Mayor Mike Duggan's administration has solicited ideas from real estate developers about how the 264-acre airfield — best known as City Airport — could be used for nonaviation purposes amid continued operating losses and limited use.

"Airports are unique assets which are difficult to replace and throughout the country, general aviation airports seldom break even and DET (the city airport) can play an important role in the City's ongoing revitalization due to its strategic location less than five miles from downtown," the draft report reads. "Many business leaders, real estate professionals, and aviation industry stakeholders agree that the Airport could be leveraged to attract investment in the aviation facilities and surrounding area."

The 60-page draft, which was whittled down to a 39-page final version, seems at odds with Duggan's stated preference of redeveloping at least a portion of the airport at Gratiot Avenue and Connor Street.

Jed Howbert, executive director of Duggan's Jobs and Economy Team, said GRA's draft report didn't follow the phased approach that the city requested and directed the company to rewrite it.

"Phase No. 1 is basically gathering the facts," Howbert said. "When we got some of the work-in-progress drafts from the consultant, we basically said they skipped ahead. I think they just got ahead of themselves. They produced a document that wasn't consistent with what we wanted. Phases No. 2 and No. 3 are really going from the basic facts from Phase No. 1 and looking forward into the different scenarios."

Those scenarios are as follows, Howbert said: "Maintain it as it is as an airport and bring it up to good repair; Scenario No. 2 is to maintain the airport with a single runway with some development around it; and Scenario No. 3 is closing it entirely" and redeveloping its 264 acres.

The contract with GRA, which began July 25 last year and expires July 24 this year, said that the company for the first phase was to: "Create a baseline financial and operational overview of Coleman A. Young Municipal Airport, including its capabilities, financial performance, assets and liabilities and infrastructure needs, as well as an overview of aviation trends in the metro Detroit area."

Richard Golaszewski, executive vice president of GRA Inc., confirmed his company scaled back the report at the city's request.

"Phase 1 really wasn't set up to reach conclusions," Golaszewski said. "That's why the one that was released is a narrower version."

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