Street Talk

Street Talk: Dick DeVos airs it out on proposed airport authority

Best for West.

August 8, 2014
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In recent years, Dick DeVos has done a great deal for the Gerald R. Ford International Airport. DeVos, president/CEO of The Windquest Group investments management firm, was honored in June for his leadership on the Regional Air Alliance West Michigan, which recently persuaded Southwest Airlines to offer its passenger service at GFIA.

So if there is a new airport authority created to govern the county-owned airport, could there be a role for DeVos on that board? Like, maybe even the head of it?

“No. I’ve got plenty to do. I’m not trying to create a job for myself,” DeVos told the Business Journal.

He is, however, totally in favor of the proposal to shift airport governance to an authority from the existing Aeronautics Board of Kent County.

He was asked what an authority could accomplish that the aeronautics board can’t.

DeVos prefaced his reply by noting, “Change is not an indictment of the past. The fact that I would advocate for change doesn’t suggest that the board has been in any way inadequate. I think the board has done a terrific job of continuing to maintain this asset on behalf of our community.”

“But that being said, in my opinion, the role of the airport has really evolved and changed over these past years,” he said, citing the “changing realities of commercial air service.”

DeVos said there has been a substantial decline at most of the other, smaller airports in West Michigan, “and thankfully, we’ve been able to reverse that trend at Gerald Ford.”

Airlines, he said, want to concentrate on a fewer number of airports where they can provide more frequent flights “at an attractive cost.” There is a substantial premium charged on flights to and from small airports, according to DeVos.

He said it is an “inevitable conclusion” that GFIA no longer is “a local airport, but it in fact is a regional hub airport — it’s a regional airport.”

Among airports on the western side of the Lower Peninsula, as far north as Traverse City and extending almost to Lansing, “Gerald Ford provides the most frequency of flights available,” said DeVos.

“As I see it, for the foreseeable future, the bulk of commercial air service is going to be provided to our West Michigan community via the Gerald Ford Airport.”

Because it is now a regional hub airport, DeVos said, “we need to have a regional governance structure around the airport that recognizes this new reality. … This airport serves many counties, not just one, and it should have input, it should have some representation, it should have some perspective on the board from all of the counties that are served by Gerald Ford, not just Kent County.”

“Nobody has done anything wrong” at the airport, he said, adding the question should be: “Does the future suggest we should do things differently? And my point is, ‘yes.’”

An airport authority at GFIA would have “independence and would have the ability to operate more like a business.”

DeVos said he would also advocate greater representation on the board by the private sector, “so that the authority would have a dominant private sector representation, similar to what we have done at the convention/arena authority, where the private sector is the majority — it’s not elected officials, so that it truly represents the economic drivers of the community.”

GFIA is “a very large business. It needs to be run like a very large business, and it needs to support … the economic activity in the community. Business people understand how that works, too, so I would advocate that not only would we expand the representation from other areas and sectors, but that we would expand that representation to add additional experienced business voices.”

He noted GFIA is an enterprise fund within Kent County government, “but it still is a — and I don’t mean this as a pejorative term — it’s a vehicle of the county, or a captive of the county. Therefore, it doesn’t have the independence of action that a business needs to be competitive in today’s environment. And that may not always be consistent with what county government needs to operate its activities.”

“The airport is a dynamic place. It needs to be continually looking to enhance and improve its operations. Independence from governmental structures (will allow it to) respond to what needs to be done to act in the best interest of the airport and the community it serves.”

DeVos clarified his point about business people being the majority on the board.

“People who think in a business-like manner — that’s what I’m talking about,” he said, meaning people with the experience of working “every day with the reality of customers and accountability, and decision making and investment and risk.”

“This is the business world that an airport needs to live in because it is not, in today’s world, just a public utility any more. It needs to be far more activist, in my opinion. I think we demonstrated that” with the successful effort to lure more airlines to GFIA.

What if DeVos is asked to serve on a GFIA airport authority board?

“I would probably decline,” he said.

Story time

If you’ve seen the spiffy Airstream trailer parked on the grounds at the Grand Rapids Art Museum and wondered what it was doing there, amble over and ask. You might become one of the next voices of Grand Rapids.

StoryCorps’ MobileBooth — essentially a trailer outfitted with a recording studio — will be parked at GRAM until Sept. 5 with the mission of recording stories of local residents. WGVU Public Media and the W.K. Kellogg Foundation are spearheading the project.

StoryCorps is a national nonprofit dedicated to recording, preserving and sharing the stories of people from all backgrounds and beliefs. To record a story in Grand Rapids, residents can call (800) 850-4406 or visit storycorps.org.

A trained facilitator guides participants through the interview process. At the end of each 40-minute recording session, participants receive a complimentary CD of their interview; with participant permission, a second copy is archived at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress.

WGVU Public Media will air a selection of local interviews and create special programs around the project. Segments of select interviews may also air nationally on NPR’s “Morning Edition.”

Founded in 2003 by award-winning documentary producer Dave Isay, StoryCorps aims to create a growing portrait of who we are as Americans.

“StoryCorps tells the true American story — that we are a people defined by small acts of courage, kindness and heroism. Each interview reminds people that their lives matter and will not be forgotten,” he said.

Aim high

The folks at aimWest are looking for a few good men and women. OK, maybe just three.

The organization has three open board positions for 2014-15, including those with responsibility for marketing and for logistics, according to President Douglas Kelly.

If interested, or if you know of someone who might be good for the job(s), let Kelly know by emailing president@aimwest.org.

It’s never too early to burnish the community service portion of your résumé for the Business Journal’s next 40 Under Forty class. Nominations for the board will be accepted through Aug. 22.

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