When Detroit officials last year commissioned a group of consultants and airport experts to conduct a study on the financially struggling Coleman A. Young Municipal Airport, it was the first time in years that decommissioning the airport and using the land for something other than aviation was on the table. City Airport is said to be one of Detroit's largest contiguous land parcels, and Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan said whatever its future, the focus would be on job creation.
With City Airport said to be home to only about 200 employees, it would follow that Duggan might not see aviation as the best possible use for the site. But would he and his team go as far as manipulating the findings of the study to ensure the airport is closed? Some say yes.
In a 60-page final draft of the first phase of the study prepared in December, the consultants and experts recommended keeping the airport and investing at least $23 million to improve it with the goal of luring commercial airlines, which haven't had regular service there in more than 15 years.
"Airports are unique assets which are difficult to replace and throughout the country, general aviation airports seldom break even and DET can play an important role in the city's ongoing revitalization due to its strategic location less than five miles from downtown," the draft of the study read. "Many business leaders, real estate professionals, and aviation industry stakeholders agree that the Airport could be leveraged to attract investment in the aviation facilities and surrounding area."
But when phase 1 the study was published and circulated to local media the following month, it had been shortened to 39 pages, omitting the recommendation. Also changed were the number of people who participated in the study — and most of those whose feedback was missing were from the aviation community.
The discrepancies were recently highlighted in stories by Crain's Detroit Business and the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA), a non-profit aviation advocacy group. Both obtained the draft report through Freedom of Information Act.
The following was included in the AOPA story, titled "Detroit airport study was heavily edited" and subtitled "Case for airfield watered down":
That first draft, dated Dec. 13, notes (on page 8, in the first paragraph under “Methodology”) that interviews and focus group conversations had been held with “over 80 people, collectively,” a number reduced to 60 in the version that became public in January.
Notably present in the initial draft but absent from the final were the names of several groups that participated, including AOPA, the National Business Aviation Association, Coleman A. Young International Airport Education Association, Tuskegee Airmen, and the “new Civil Air Patrol chapter at DET.” Feedback gathered from other business and civic groups including the Building Owners and Managers Association of Metro Detroit and Urban Land Institute, which helped connect the consultants with real estate professionals with at least 20 years of local experience, was also omitted.
The final report says little about the airport’s value to the community, and emphasizes its cost to local taxpayers with little indication that federal grants could cover most of the cost of needed repairs and upgrades.
Crain's reported that also omitted was a section suggesting that Duggan's office already has plans to convert the entire airport into an industrial park.
"The Mayor's Office current strategy to redevelop the airport is based upon large auto suppliers requiring 40-acre parcels, allowing for up to six users with another 25 acres for commercial and retail redevelopment of the Historic Executive Terminal at the corner of Conner Avenue and Gratiot Avenue," GRA's draft report says. "Taken together, the airport and surrounding land could total in excess of 530 acres for industrial users."
But Detroit would likely face an uphill legal, political and budgetary battle if Duggan moved to sell off all or part of the airport land.
The city would have to pay back an as-yet unknown "large obligation" in grants for the airport it has received over nearly 20 years, and the State of Michigan has right of first refusal for the land, according to the GRA consultant's report. The exact obligation is not known; that is expected to be determined in the third phase of the study.
Crain's also noted that the Duggan administration is conducting the study as it also denies "aviation companies, flight schools, or vendors the ability to sign multi-year leases and invest in the facility." The group Friends of City Airport sees it as an effort to put the airfield out of business, the publication reported.
All of this prompted the editor-in-chief of Crain's to last Sunday publish what might be his first-ever public critique of the mayor.
"I was stunned to learn that our mayor's office edited out part of the report that they clearly didn't like or agree with," Keith Crain says in a column titled, "The end of transparency in Detroit?" "That is simply wrong — very wrong — and something that I would have expected under Coleman Young's administration, not Duggan's."
The city denies its meddling was motivated by a mayor intent on getting his way.
"The agreement and the direction given to the consultant was that first phase of the study would present only the facts as they are today regarding airport usage, capital needs and the overall small aircraft market in the Detroit area, while subsequent phases would explore options and provide recommendations," Duggan spokesman John Roach says in an email. "Because the consultant included in the Phase One draft information that was outside the scope of that portion of the study, it was appropriately removed in the final Phase One report."
But Crain isn't buying it.
"Why go to so much trouble to hide good advice?" he writes. "This would seem to be a simple case of censorship by the mayor's office to eliminate unfavorable conclusions that they didn't want made public."
"I had always hoped that this mayor believed in complete transparency, but it would appear that that is not the case," he adds.
You can compare the draft study versus the final below.
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