ots of metropolitan areas would like to be home to an Airport City or Aerotropolis — an airport-anchored area home to commercial, industrial, retail and residential developments. But few cities that aspire to hosting one have the built-in assets required to see one take shape. Detroit does, and efforts have been under way since 2010, under the Detroit Region Aerotropolis moniker, to turn the 60,000 acres (24,300 hectares) around the Detroit Metropolitan (DTW) and Willow Run Airports into a world class Airport City. Among the Detroit Region Aerotropolis’ advantages are its two airports — one that serves as a major hub for Delta Airlines and its chief airport for Asian flights and one, Willow Run, that handles most of the region’s air cargo and general aviation activity.
That is substantial air power, notes Tom Naughton, interim CEO of the Wayne County Airport Authority. “More than anything, what makes an Aerotropolis concept viable is the presence of a major, international, connecting hub airport with a powerful array of international and domestic routes and an efficient airfield with room to grow,” says Naughton. “I agree with the commonly held belief that a major role of government should be to create infrastructure for the private sector to build the businesses which will generate jobs and economic prosperity. With two modern and efficient terminals and six jet runways at Detroit Metropolitan Airport (DTW), the Airport Authority is providing an infrastructure capable of supporting significant economic development within the Detroit Region Aerotropolis footprint and beyond.”
In addition to an extensive domestic route network, DTW features scheduled non-stop air service on Royal Jordanian to Amman, Air France to Paris, Lufthansa to Frankfurt, and hub carrier Delta to Shanghai, Beijing, Hong Kong, Seoul, Tokyo, Nagoya, São Paulo, Amsterdam, Paris, London, Frankfurt, Rome and multiple cities in Canada, Mexico and the Caribbean. Lufthansa recently commenced scheduled weekly freighter service between Frankfurt and Detroit and is considering a second frequency in March.
“Our region has the added advantage of a reliever airport, Willow Run, just down the road, dedicated primarily to cargo and general aviation,” adds Naughton. “The Authority’s air power nicely compliments the excellent rail and Interstate highway access to the Aerotropolis footprint.
Two more built-in advantages are the nearby international border at Detroit-Windsor, Ont., which is the primary trade corridor between the U.S. and Canada; and the buy-in of two counties — Wayne and Washtenaw — the Wayne County Airport Authority and the municipalities of Romulus, Taylor, the City of Ypsilanti, Belleville, Huron, Van Buren and Ypsilanti Township.
Counties, Municipalities Are on the Same Page
“Nine local governments along the I-94 corridor and surrounding our airports have come together to form a unique working relationship,” says Wayne County Executive Robert Ficano. “Intergovernmental agreements have been executed to streamline development entitlements processes to get permits and agency approvals within 60 days. Wayne County is very proud to be part of the unique collaboration on the Aerotropolis project.”
How do the individual communities benefit from their association with the Detroit Region Aerotropolis?
“Being part of the Aerotropolis Development Corporation allows our community to leverage our partner resources for international marketing and business attraction efforts,” says Tony VanDerworp, director of community and economic development for Washtenaw County. “Additionally, because of our partnership, we have been successful in establishing state-approved development incentives that will accelerate our business growth efforts. It is our vision that the Aerotropolis initiative will help our region become recognized in the global marketplace for its supply-chain assets and its vibrant style of living. Our people will benefit directly from this growth.”
Also working to the Detroit Region Aerotropolis’ advantage is the area’s manufacturing and industrial heritage, particularly in the automotive sector and logistics, Ficano points out. “Our international reputation for manufacturing innovation, our geographic location and our supply-chain infrastructure are our prime assets. Wayne County, the most culturally diverse county in the state of Michigan, provides a competitive advantage for anyone seeking opportunities. When looking to locate a business or to make investment, Wayne County is the place as it looks like the rest of the world.
“We share an international border with Canada, the largest United States trading partner,” he adds. “Air passengers can reach all regions of the U.S. in six hours or less and air freight reaches 60 percent of the U.S. population overnight. Our region’s robust supply-chain infrastructure serves as the linchpin of economic development investment in Michigan.”
Ray Byers, chief development officer for Wayne County and a board member of the Aerotropolis Development Corporation, puts it this way: “The heartbeat of Michigan’s sustained economy is based in large part on the region’s ability to move people and products efficiently. Our region has a robust supply-chain infrastructure serving as the linchpin of economic development investment in Michigan.” In 2010, Willow Run Airport handled over 200 million pounds of cargo, making it one of the nation’s largest airports for landed air freight flown by exclusively cargo aircraft, he points out. Willow Run Airport-based carriers transport a wide range of cargo, including high-value automotive and electronic components, emergency medical supplies, mail and packages.
“Wayne County fosters strong relationships with the ADC partners and stakeholders and works closely with the Michigan Economic Development Corporation,” says Byers, adding that the county’s Economic Development Growth Engine (EDGE) provides direct staff resources to manage the day to day activities of the ADC. “As the County’s strategic economic and community development group, EDGE brings national and international investment opportunities to the table as well as federal and state transportation funding. Our regional partnerships and infrastructure strengths are the vital components of the vision of the Detroit Region Aerotropolis Development Corporation and its related programs.”
Another key player is Business Leaders for Michigan, the state’s private business roundtable comprised of the top executives of Michigan’s largest job providers and universities.
“Business Leaders for Michigan brings leadership and resources to this effort,” explains Sabrina Keeley, chief operating officer. “Detroit Renaissance, our former entity, contracted for the studies that provided the business case for the Aerotropolis initiative and worked with the local government stakeholders to help create the Aerotropolis Development Corporation. We continue to be a supporter and investor in the initiative.
“We believe the southeast Michigan region and entire state will benefit from the Aerotropolis,” she continues. “The Jones Lang LaSalle study projected the potential for over 60,000 jobs and $10 billion in economic impact over the long term. That will impact the entire state of Michigan in a very significant and positive way.”
All of which make the southeast Michigan region ideal for development of an Aerotropolis — except for some issues impeding progress. These include an anemic economic recovery, causing some potential investors and developers to postpone their expansion plans, and even competition from Detroit’s central business district, which is fighting hard to bring businesses back downtown — and is having some success (see the Michigan Spotlight in the January 2012 issue).
“A successful Detroit Region Aerotropolis will require faith and commitment paired with keen marketing and understanding of which companies will make the Detroit-area airports successful beyond just transporting passengers and freight,” says Wayne County Executive Ficano. “The Aerotropolis vision will mean new investments in industries that trade in time-sensitive manufacturing, e-commerce fulfillment, telecommunications and logistics. These companies in turn would be ringed by hotels, restaurants and retailers, followed by a ring of residential development. The Detroit Region Aerotropolis is a long-term vision, a marathon, not a sprint, that will be a magnet for job creation for decades to come and beyond.”
Adds the Airport Authority’s Tom Naughton: “I believe that a successful Detroit Region Aerotropolis can contribute significantly to diversifying Michigan’s economy. There is great potential in taking advantage of the enormous lift provided by the airlines at both airports. Available land at very reasonable prices, cooperation among various government entities and private sector participation are the keys, and that is exactly what we have. Instead of gas stations, strip malls and motels, why not corporate headquarters, alternative energy and research facilities? Those developments generate not just jobs, but careers, and would enhance Michigan’s position in today’s global economy.”