Massive airport undertaking positions region for development

January 25, 2010
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Last month's dedication ceremony wasn't only for Gerald R. Ford International Airport's improvement project. The observance that chilly December day also hopefully signaled the beginning of a better economic era for the region.

The project was 20 years in the making.

Back in the early 1990s, members of the Kent County Aeronautics Board began thinking about a massive improvement project for the region's largest and most active airport. But a major upgrade could only be made to the facility when revenue from operations could pay for it.

"It took us awhile to get to the level of activity where we could finally support it," said GFIA Executive Director James Koslosky, who has held that post since 1991.

2004 was the first year the airport served 2 million customers and the year that revenue was finally strong enough to support a bond package for one of the largest improvement projects in recent history.

The project got under way the same year the airport served its 50 millionth customer since opening in 1963. On Sept. 9, 2007, work at the airport began on the $118 million improvement project that would position GFIA for the economic future. The crowning jewel of the expansive project was a $70 million, four-story parking ramp with 4,900 spaces. Another $48 million was spent on improvements to the terminal and the property.

"This is more than a parking garage. There are a lot of elements in this project," said Koslosky.

Those elements included new sewer, water, gas and electric utilities for the terminal area, new roads and new street landscaping around the terminal, a new canopy that runs along and over the terminal's entrance, new skybridges from the ramp to the terminal building and an inter-modal facility for the Interurban Transit Partnership, the public transit service.

"That's why it's a terminal-area improvement program that includes a parking structure. So the level of customer service here is just going to be phenomenal," said Koslosky.

The Right Place Inc. President Birgit Klohs felt the project made the airport an even bigger player in the region's economic development efforts.

"What this renovation does is continue to position us as a contender in the game for new jobs. Is it all of it? No, but it is a very critical piece of the infrastructure. … When people visit or come here to look for a place to live or work, or to move their plant or factory, it's the first place they come to," she said of GFIA.

"The airport is quite an economic engine. It brings in millions of dollars in economic activity, provides over 1,500 jobs on site: It's an icon of West Michigan," she added.

Other 2009 accomplishments included airport officials landing Allegiant Air, which provides direct flights from GFIA to five vacation destinations in Florida, Nevada and Arizona.

"We are the most successful single market that they have in their system," said Koslosky. "They have added, since they started in February, three other destinations, and they're looking at others for this market because they're flying full airplanes. They have a fare structure that competes very well with the legacy carriers that we have."

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