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Whither City Airport?

Pity the poor developers. Politics tie them in knots. Their rapacious peers have given them all a complex — as though it’s wrong to make a buck.

“I don’t want to mention myself,” Hallison Young tells me. “It looks like I’m a developer trying to hustle development.”

Which is exactly what he’s doing.

Alas. Behind most “grassroots movements” is someone looking to cash in. Liberal wonks even have a name for such artificial altruism: an “AstroTurf movement.”

Hallison Young is a principal in a firm called Xanadu that is driving a fledgling effort to close and redevelop Detroit City Airport. Another Xanadu player is a man who has logged serious time on AstroTurf — former Detroit Lions star Billy Sims. Xanadu owns property across Gratiot from the airport.

If Xanadu gets its way — and that’s a very long shot — homes, schools and businesses would replace the drone of planes on the east side of Detroit. Toward that end, an ad hoc committee convened Monday to discuss ways of opening the 270-acre airport site for more palatable purposes. Government officials, religious leaders, activists and academics attended.

State Rep. LaMar Lemmons set up the meeting. Lemmons says residents of his district worry about safety and security in the wake of the Sept. 11 terror attacks. (He mentions that there are lots of Arabs living in the region.) Environmental degradation is another concern, he says.

And one more thing. “There are developers champing at the bit to develop City Airport if it closes,” Lemmons says.

Xanadu President Juana Woodson bats her considerable lashes and says, “We were contacted by the community because we’re property owners at Gratiot and Conner to be involved in an initiative to see what the possibility of closing down the airport would mean to the community.” Yada, yada.

Lemmons says he was asked to help because he has the ear of Mayor-elect Kwame Kilpatrick. I ask Lemmons who complained to him about safety and pollution problems at the airport. The only name he mentions is Hallison Young. Ken Poynter, mayor of Harper Woods, says Sims asked him to serve on the committee. Kurt Metzger, research director at the Center for Urban Studies at Wayne State, says both Sims and Young contacted him.

So much for grassroots activism.

Xanadu’s ham-fisted sleight of hand only serves to distract from the possibility that the firm might hit the jackpot and lift up a moribund area. It distracts from the possibility that residents genuinely want new development. The area around the airport has seen a precipitous population decline in the past decade. And Detroit Public Schools is desperate to find a sizable tract in that area for a new campus. Despite residential flight, two area schools designed to house 700 students have nearly double that enrollment.

Lemmons says he has spoken informally with Kilpatrick about redeveloping the airport. Kilpatrick, whose wife gave birth to their third son on Sunday, could not be reached for comment.

But trust me when I tell you that most politicos would rather give birth to Kwame’s child than close airports, which are viewed, perhaps dubiously, as economic engines.

Kilpatrick’s spokesman, Bob Berg, says one of the transitional teams that Kilpatrick established has reviewed City Airport operations and will forward recommendations to the incoming mayor next week.

“His position hasn’t changed since the campaign,” Berg says. “He still thinks that it makes sense to have City Airport become similar to what Midway is in Chicago or Love Field is in Dallas.”

That would mean reliable passenger service, something the airport has been without since September 2000, when the feds closed discount carrier ProAir over safety and bookkeeping lapses. ProAir declared bankruptcy and began liquidation (though the City Airport Web site still features a ProAir 737).

“Some of those folks like the people at Grosse Pointe have been opposed to any additional activity at the airport all along,” Berg adds. “City Airport was there before those people moved into Grosse Pointe.”

Planes have been landing near the corner of Conner and Gratiot since the Roaring ’20s. The old building that still houses the Executive Terminal was completed in 1930. It has a grungy, noir countenance.

Yet even without passenger service, the airport had racked up nearly 80,000 takeoffs and landings through November of this year. The peak year was 1999, when 154,000 “operations” occurred. Most of them involved small, private planes, about 200 of which are based at the airport. There’s a long waiting list for anyone wanting to park a plane at City Airport. Then there’s business jet and charter traffic, as well as two freight carriers.

Although it is considered a city “enterprise fund,” the airport has been anything but. It’s a proverbial rat hole, amassing nearly $20 million in operating losses since ’95. Administrative costs have nearly doubled since 1993, to $1.2 million this year.

Berg sniffs that the Police Department loses money, but nobody is proposing shutting it down.

Greg Bowens, spokesman for lame-duck Mayor Dennis Archer, is also bullish on the airport.

“I’m sure that General Motors and supplier companies and other businesses in Detroit would take exception [to closure]. That’s a fairly busy airport for noncommercial flights,” says Bowens.

He says the city is talking with three passenger carriers about serving City Airport, though he declined to identify any.

Bowens called Xanadu’s proposal “a wild idea.”

“People have all kinds of ideas for things to do. But City Airport as it stands is important,” he said.

One city study put the total benefits of City Airport at $45 million in 1999. The airport and its tenants were responsible for 375 full-time jobs and 103 part-time jobs that year, the study says.

I put little stock in the dollar figures trotted out in economic impact reports. Most are made to order.

And, given its current state, I can’t help but wonder if Detroit shouldn’t be open to wild ideas.

Jeremy Voas is editor of Metro Times. E-mail him at jvoas@metrotimes.com

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