‘Aerotropolis’ project finally taking off; could provide much-needed lift for Southeast Michigan

“What could be the single largest economic development project in Michigan history has been sitting there, right under our nose.”

That’s the first paragraph of a column I wrote way back in 2001. In it, I advocated prompt action by Michigan leaders to make real the promise of the “Aerotropolis,” the idea of realizing the blockbuster economic potential offered by combining Detroit Metropolitan and Willow Run Airports with the 25,000 acres of relatively undeveloped land in between.

Coupled with our existing network of expressways and railroads, sea-based traffic through the Detroit River and our location adjacent to Canada, this offers the potential for a world-class business-logistics gateway right into the center of our country.

Evidence from similar developments -- Schiphol Airport near Amsterdam and Hong Kong -- suggests the long-term potential is enormous: As much as 60,000 jobs and $10 billion in investment.

So I am delighted that the Detroit Region Aerotropolis Development Corporation has just hired a CEO, completed a strategic marketing plan and rebranded itself as “VantagePort.”

This means that, at long last, things are actually happening. Tim Keyes, the former economic development manager for the city of Romulus, is the new VantagePort CEO. He’s smart and experienced. He knows how to get things moving through the thicket of Wayne County politics. And he’s got a clear endorsement from local and county government and the business community.

What is sad is that it’s taken so long to get things moving. Former Gov. John Engler and former Wayne County Executive Ed McNamara laid the groundwork in 2002, by setting up the Wayne County Airport Authority, charged with managing both Detroit Metro and Willow Run. And Wayne County Executive Robert Ficano has been an ardent supporter ever since the idea was first proposed.

But getting from there to here has been tough. Wayne County politics are, at best, inscrutable, and it took considerable huffing and puffing just to pull together the various local communities surrounding the airport.  Former Gov. Jennifer Granholm didn’t help. Years ago, when I urged her to make the Aerotropolis a big-time economic development priority, she sniffed, “too many moving parts.”

Other Michigan communities, seeing that the state might actually do something to help make the Aerotropolis a reality, jumped in, wanting duplicates for themselves, blurring what should have been clear focus. And the “Aerotropolis” name never really caught on.

But at long last, things seem to be moving. New CEO Keyes has a clear agenda, including a marketing and business development program incorporating the new “VantagePort” name. He must put together a land development program and identify business targets in each sector of industry. Already there is some momentum.

VantagePort claims considerable recent progress: More than 2,500 new jobs and around $320 million in planned investment.

A big driver for progress has come from Business Leaders for Michigan and its CEO and president, Doug Rothwell. “The development of the Aerotropolis was identified as a key component in accelerating growth in Southeast Michigan in Business Leaders for Michigan’s New Michigan strategy,”  he said. “We have tremendous assets we can leverage to grow our state’s economy, including a world class airport, surrounding land available for development, unique geographic location and a skilled work force.”

Frankly, BLM deserves a big pat on the back for keeping up the pressure for this over the years while others dilly-dallied.

This is not to say realizing the full potential will be easy. Detroit has filed for bankruptcy and is preoccupied with survival. Wayne County is a mess, with Ficano’s political future uncertain at best. Gov. Rick Snyder, who reportedly likes the idea, has his hands full.

But the potential is enormous. Chicago, the only other competitor for a world logistics center opening up the center of America, is out of space, congested and embroiled in its own problems. Professor John Kasarda, the former director of the Kenan Institute of Private Enterprise at the University of North Carolina and a world authority on airport-driven economic development, told me in 2001, “Nowhere in the world have I seen anything like the potential Wayne County Metro and Willow Run Airport have if they’re put together right. … This will happen.” The only question was when.

The time is now. Snyder should make VantagePort one of his administration’s key economic development priorities, and he should get the Michigan Economic Development Corp. firmly behind it. New CEO Keyes should start recruiting regional business and political leaders.

After all this time, waiting any longer to get the ball rolling and get this off the ground wouldn’t make any sense at all.

Editor’s note: Former newspaper publisher and University of Michigan Regent Phil Power is a longtime observer of Michigan politics and economics. He is also the founder and chairman of the Center for Michigan, a nonprofit, bipartisan centrist think–and–do tank, designed to cure Michigan’s dysfunctional political culture; the Center also publishes Bridge Magazine. The opinions expressed here are Power’s own and do not represent the official views of the Center. He welcomes your comments via email.

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Tue, 07/23/2013 - 9:56am
Amen! And, high time is right. Let's get other media to weigh in; and help get a drumbeat going - or a Wayne County-wide WAVE! I especially appreciated Jack Lussenberry's candid comments just yesterday 7-22-13 on the sensibility of combining Wayne County AND Detroit as a long-term resolution to many ills and inefficiencies. Just look at Indianapolis where city and county are identical; and KNOW that Wayne County and Detroit have that potential. Great Lakes Global Freight Gateway and the development of the city and Wayne County as the regional Logistics and Supply HUB for the heartland of North America is where the economic cornerstone of Michigan lies. Among Snyder's able advisors are ones whom I've heard say "we like complicated". May we alI commend those with a willingness to wrestle with - and try to resolve - such great challenges. We all need to pull together and support those willing to work on this "in the arena" (as Theo Roosevelt appreciated). Perhaps the quote from David Burnham (1846 - 1912) can also be inspirational: Make No Little Plans; they have no magic . . . . Make big plans; aim high in hope and work, remembering that a noble, logical diagram once recorded will never die, but long after we are gone will be a living thing, asserting itself with ever growing insistency. ..."
Neil Karl
Tue, 07/23/2013 - 2:36pm
A name is important. Replacing Aerotropolis with VantagePort does not seem catchy phrase to me.
Andrew Paterson
Tue, 07/23/2013 - 7:07pm
I cannot understand why this idea has not caught more fire. Money? or the lack thereof? Probably part of the reason, because it will be expensive. The daunting size(including the size of the money) of the project? - yes, Dave Friedrichs, it is indeed a BIG plan. Has the new bridge even been thought of as a part of the project? Has thinking about integrating the new bridge, the Port of Detroit, the rail tunnel, etc., into the Aerotropolis - one of the worlds largest collection of huge runways close together? My impression, albeit from a very limited observation, is that there is no one with interest in leading the project. A by-product of??? Splitting off the airport authority from Wayne county? The less than compelling direction from both the airport authority and its stepfather the Wayne county and its exec & board of commissioners? Hopefully Mr. Keyes will grab this ball (hot potato?) and run with it. It could be fantastic.
Wed, 07/24/2013 - 4:07pm
Undeveloped?? what are they talking about, the property between Willow and Metro is well developed, assuming he means the area north of Metro/I-94 and east of Willow airport. Lots of people live there and there are some nice wooded areas and parks. I find it very offensive to think that this guy thinks we should force a lot of people to move and tear down there neighborhoods to make Metro airport 40 square miles bigger. HUGE NOT !!!! IF there were the traffic that could support such a monstrosity, it would totally wipe out living conditions with in several miles from the area, Nobody would want to live near the noise and pollution. it would wash away Belleville, Sumpter, Dearborn Heights, Taylor. Next this goomer will suggest that we build a bridge from Canada all the way to Metro airport. The standard of living in the area would be slums, no thanks.
Michael Emlaw
Sun, 07/28/2013 - 6:31pm
Phil, nice to see you throw the spotlight on VantagePort and its tremendous potential for southeast Michigan. Among the disappointments in moving the concept forward these past few years is the passive/aggressive position Ann Arbor has taken. While ostensibly supporting the idea of developing the Willow Run/Metro hub, key individuals in business and government have at the same time taken quiet steps to upgrade the Ann Arbor Municipal Airport to accommodate larger planes/jets in direct competition with Willow Run. Apparently having available facilities fifteen minutes away is just too inconvenient. We need to get our act together.