Could there be an "Airport City" in Michigan's future?

Jul 13, 2011

What do you think of this idea for an economic engine to lead Michigan’s revival? A vast business center and international freight-moving operation springing up between two major airports - Detroit Metropolitan and Willow Run, a few miles to its west.

The idea is to bring together and coordinate air, road, rail and water transportation systems to move goods to and from the rest of the globe to the Midwest. Planners think that within a few years, this new commercial “Airport City” could handle freight faster, cheaper and more efficiently than anywhere else.

I have to confess that when I first heard of this, I thought it was one more pie-in-the sky dream, probably floated by somebody angling for tax credits.  But a lot of sober, sensible business types really believe that this is a dream that could come true.

Phil Power, the usually cautious founder of the non-partisan Center for Michigan, is an enthusiastic backer of this concept, which he believes could generate sixty-five thousand jobs and ten billion dollars in new economic activity over the next twenty years.

That would be huge, especially for a state struggling to reinvent its economy. And Power is not alone. Doug Rothwell, the head of Business Leaders for Michigan is an enthusiastic supporter.

So is Robert Ficano, the Wayne County Executive.  In fact, he has just chartered an incubator of sorts to help make it a reality, the Aerotropolis Development Corporation. There is a slight problem with what to call all this. Aerotropolis seems to be the most common term.

Phil Power calls it the “multi-modal logistical hub,” a name which I strongly predict will never catch on. My choice would have been Airport City, which is easy to pronounce.

But for now, we’ll stick with Aerotropolis. The core of all this would be to turn the twenty-seven thousand acres of underdeveloped land between the two airports into a giant center of light manufacturing, engineering, and cargo storage and processing center, combined with office space.

This would then be linked to what planners are calling the Great Lakes Global Freight Gateway, which would link major deep water Atlantic Canadian ports with our railroad network. That could reduce distribution costs and give Detroit an advantage over Chicago. Two other things would also have to happen: The new bridge over the Detroit River, and a new, badly needed railroad tunnel under that river.

This idea isn’t really new. I first heard a version of it from former Wayne County Executive Robert McNamara, who has been dead for five years. But there is now a far greater sense of urgency, and a general recognition that the old ways don’t work anymore.

Getting this done, one former congressman told me, will be tricky, and has to be done soon: “There are a lot of moving parts, and you’ll need an immense amount of private capital. But it’s possible.”

Possible, and some think, vitally necessary. “The traditional route is through Chicago, but Chicago is out of capacity,” Ficano says, adding that we’ve got it all in one place here -- “rail, road, water and air.” The only question may be whether Michigan has the political will to move fast enough. What seems crystal clear is that we are running out of opportunities that we can afford to lose.