Bob Guenzel: Washtenaw County executive says 'aerotropolis' plan should be accelerated
News that Willow Run Airport was losing money and possibly facing closure caught Washtenaw County Administrator Bob Guenzel by surprise this week.
But he also said the information should be used to accelerate planning for the airport-area development district - the so-called aerotropolis that includes Willow Run and Detroit Metropolitan airports.
“To me it only intensifies the need for concentrating on the aerotropolis,” Guenzel said, including marketing the project and approving state incentives - such as renaissance zones - for the district.
“ It’s a surprise, but proves that we need to step up economic development around the airports.”
Guenzel is among the Washtenaw County officials leading local participation in the regional aerotropolis project. Its mission: To unify seven communities and two counties around the development of a commercial hub that capitalizes on the 60,000 acres between Detroit Metro and Willow Run, which straddles the border between Ypsilanti and Van Buren townships.
According to Washtenaw County documents, the aerotropolis could attract over 64,000 jobs and generate over $10 billion in economic activity in just the top 13 sites, representing just a fraction of the property.
The concept was floated years ago - and it’s suffered since from its size and the economy.
But it’s also still moving forward. Last March, Washtenaw County voted to approve its part of the Aerotropolis Development Corp.
Just last week, Guenzel said, he and Wayne County Administrator Robert Ficano traveled to Lansing to urge lawmakers to approve the district, which would set development criteria and take the lead in marketing.
Since the story about Willow Run’s problems appeared Sept. 15 in the Detroit News, the Wayne County Airport Authority issued a statement saying a closure “was not a viable option for the foreseeable future.”
But the airport is still facing a sharp downturn in traffic - which means that it lost $7.77 million last year.
The economic downturn isn’t just affecting Willow Run Airport. Guenzel was also preparing this week for the Sept. 16 county board meeting, where he was to recommend spending cuts to trim a $30 million deficit for next year.
But finding opportunities for economic development will help counter the shortfalls affecting the state and its municipalities, he said.
Today’s climate for manufacturing and land development has bottomed out, but the airport area still offers what Ficano has called a world-class business hub.
And aggressively pursuing the business opportunities that are out there - such as GE opening an advanced manufacturing and software center in Van Buren Township - needs to be the next step to keep the plan, and the aiport alive, Guenzel said.
That will be particularly important for both Ypsilanti and Ypsilanti Township, the two communities that will be a part of the aerotropolis district.
Changes at Willow Run “wouldn’t be helpful,” Guenzel said.
“Ypsilanti Township and Ypsilanti are very much behind the aerotropolis concept, which will be the gateway to Washtenaw County.
“There’s tremendous potential for development around Willow Run.”