Landing progress one very big step at a time

December 7, 2009
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Perspective is important, and it is not a word defined by “hindsight.” It may be best defined this week by two local events. Last week, as snow clouds picked up moisture from the vastness of Lake Michigan and threatened the season’s first (and significant) lake effect snow storm, the Gerald R. Ford International Airport Board cut the ribbons to the entry of a new four-level — covered — parking facility. It is the most visible piece of $118 million in airport improvements. This week, that well-designed landing “platform” will welcome guests and dignitaries, including architect Rafael Vinoly, for the Van Andel Institute’s Phase II dedication of its $178 million addition.

The airport is a fundamental economic development tool in this region and its service knows no boundaries. Its primary source of revenue and use is the business community. The Right Place Inc. President Birgit Klohs often reminds area residents that Michigan is a peninsula, and as such has unique issues for those who would travel here. The road from Milwaukee is a flight route.

Still, the acknowledged “fiscally conservative” members of the airport board were asked several times last week to defend the expenditure, one not borne by the Kent County Board of Commissioners, nor taxpayers. The self-sustaining business enterprise is paying off its bond issue through operations. This is a complete about-face from just a few years ago when they were asked annually to defend why such improvements had not been made.

In fact, the number of enplaned and deplaned passengers is up this October over October 2008, though year-to-date comparisons show a 4 percent decline.

Even while this region awaits a full recovery from the recession, the Van Andel Institute opens the doors this week to recruiting more than 500 scientific researchers. Several researchers are in the process of moving from the University of Cincinnati, bringing a $6.2 million National Institutes of Health grant for a Morris K. Udall Center of Excellence for Parkinson’s Disease Research. That group will work with Michigan State University’s College of Human Medicine; the program is one of 14 funded by NIH.

The MSU medical school will open next year, and the domino effect on the health care community is not bounded only by the Medical Mile, but flows to Metro Health in Byron Center and its growing relationship with the University of Michigan. Local colleges and universities are recruiting health care professionals for their classrooms.

Further, The Right Place this year has recorded $200 million in capital investments and 4,100 new or retained jobs in this region. Last month, Gentex announced it would hire another 40 engineers and additional production workers. GE Aviation in Cascade last month announced it had signed a new venture with a Chinese manufacturer that will require hiring 200 new employees.

The airport board waited to make the improvements until operations (more than) sufficiently covered such costs. That was achieved in 2004 when the airport served 2 million passengers in one year. The board waited until 2007 to approve the project, the year the facility celebrated its 50 millionth customer. Of the project total, $48 million was spent on sewer, water, gas and electric utilities, as well as new roads.

But the best news for readers of this publication: It was on budget and finished ahead of schedule. Congratulations are in order.

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