Guest Column

Sky’s the limit for aviation grads, new airport board

June 24, 2016
| By Dick DeVos |
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As the 2016 graduation season comes to a close, most of us will have celebrated this important transitional moment with at least one friend or family member.

On June 2, 94 talented students received their diplomas from West Michigan Aviation Academy.

I am very excited to watch what’s in store for these graduates as they take the next steps toward their aviation careers.

As I talked with several WMAA seniors this year about their hopes and dreams, I recognized a correlation between this stage in their lives and the transitional — or more appropriately, transformational — events next door at Gerald R. Ford International Airport.

Following three consecutive years of record growth, the recent expansion of Southwest’s service out of Grand Rapids, the initiation of $94 million in capital improvements over the next five years, and the current search for a new executive director, GFIA is at a pivotal moment.

Next month, the airport will celebrate its own commencement of sorts. The new Gerald R. Ford International Airport Authority is set to fully take the reins July 1. This change in leadership structure is an opportunity to accelerate the momentum of the past decade and shape the future — not only of air service, but of economic development in West Michigan.

The new GFIA Authority will be a business-focused board, charged solely with the future development of the airport. This independent authority, unencumbered by broad-based priorities of the county, will have the agility to create commercially oriented policies and embrace GFIA’s potential as a vital platform for entrepreneurship and economic growth.

This commencement could not come at a better time.

Thanks in large part to sound direction from the current GFIA board and four years of outstanding leadership by former executive director Brian Ryks, GFIA was recently named the best airport of its size in North America. It is essential that we continue on this trajectory by attracting a director who shares Brian’s understanding of how public and private interests must work together for the good of the region.

Significant capital improvements, infused with a distinctly West Michigan blend of public and private investments, are well underway.

Gateway Transformation Campaign projects planned through 2020 include consolidated airport security screening, renovations in the Grand Hall, revamped business centers, upgraded décor and an exhibit paying tribute to Grand Rapids’ favorite son, President Gerald R. Ford. We also look forward to new retail and restaurant options featuring healthy foods and highlighting West Michigan’s burgeoning craft beer industry.

The GFIA Authority’s emphasis on proactive commercial revenue development, innovative financing and broad regional cooperation will diversify and strengthen the airport revenue base and create a foundation for expansion of air service, lower airline costs, enhanced customer service and increased competitiveness.

Already credited with generating $3.1 billion in economic output and 40,000 jobs in West Michigan, GFIA will serve as an ever-stronger economic engine under the leadership of the new Airport Authority. And as the airport grows as a job creator, I trust a new generation of aviation professionals from West Michigan Aviation Academy will contribute to its success.

Like so many strong public-private partnerships in West Michigan, the airport has thrived thanks to the collective wisdom, creativity, entrepreneurialism and vision of our business, philanthropic and elected leaders. Under the new Airport Authority and a new director, I expect to watch the Gerald R. Ford International Airport — and our region — soar.

Dick DeVos is president of The Windquest Group, a privately held enterprise and investment management firm with projects in technology, manufacturing, clean tech, hospitality and nonprofit solutions.

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