Airport plans provide economic ‘domino’ effect

February 23, 2018
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The Business Journal is reporting in greater depth on a new master plan and commercial development opportunities at the Gerald R. Ford International Airport. Taken all together, it is likely the largest economic stimulus project in West Michigan history, rivaling the famed developments brought by Grand Action to downtown Grand Rapids. And like any Grand Action plan, the full magnitude of the project will reveal itself over a 20-year span.

Ford Airport has been riding a wave of prolonged successes. At year-end 2017, it broke its annual passenger record for the fifth straight year. The airport served more than 12.5 million passengers from 2013-17. Almost 2.5 billion pounds of cargo has been processed since 1967, and cargo totals for 2017 alone hit 88.2 million pounds, a 2.56 percent increase over 2016. Airport President and CEO Jim Gill told the Business Journal he believes passenger travel in January alone will set another record.

Birgit Klohs, president and CEO of the Right Place and a board member of the airport authority, said, “If the community continues to grow, the airport then will continue to grow because the airport’s growth and success … is a direct correlation to an economy in West Michigan that is doing extremely well.” Klohs said diversifying revenue sources is among GFIA’s priorities in the coming years. She often emphasizes the economic development agency serves the entire region and certainly sees the development and advancement of GFIA as central to that effort.

In addition to continued airport improvements in the ticketing and baggage areas, plans will include moving the control tower, a move central to the airport’s opportunity to offer international flights.

The master plan certainly makes the 800 acres available for lease for non-aeronautical commercial development on surrounding airport property a place maker. Some of those properties are “shovel-ready,” including one 109-acre parcel with utilities, roads, light poles and fire hydrants already in place. Other site sizes are 200 acres, 116 acres and some as small as five acres. Commercial purposes envisioned include a business park, industrial site, or a tech or flex site, for example. Gill is hopeful it offers opportunity for a corporate headquarters. Klohs noted it will “position the airport for more creative funding and economic development opportunities.”

The $32-million expansion that saw its final phase in 2017 was supported by more than $17 million raised through sponsorships, with the remainder of the support coming from airport funds and passenger facility charges. Amway, Meijer, SpartanNash, Spectrum Health, Steelcase and Wolverine Worldwide each donated at least $1 million in addition to notable sponsorships from multiple other entities.

The airport area is the largest employment sector in West Michigan, including the largely industrial and business areas of Kentwood and Cascade Township.

The plans taking shape hold extensive economic opportunity for West Michigan and a tremendous “domino” effect.

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