GRAND RAPIDS –– West Michigan leaders believe they made a compelling case for the region to serve as the home to online retail giant Amazon.com Inc.’s second headquarters.
But they also concede the process of compiling the pitch through various partnerships allowed the region to recognize some of the areas where it falls short in terms of its ability to attract large-scale corporate projects.
One such gap includes direct air service to large domestic and international hubs on the West Coast, a clear requirement Seattle-based Amazon listed in its Request For Proposals (RFP).
The Right Place Inc., a Grand Rapids-based economic development organization, and its local partners submitted one of the 238 proposals the online retailer received in late October, as MiBiz previously reported.
Currently, passengers flying out of Gerald R. Ford International Airport in Grand Rapids have nonstop flights as far west as Las Vegas or Phoenix. Passengers have nonstop options to major East Coast hubs such as New York City, Washington, D.C. and Philadelphia, as well as to the growing southeast region, including Atlanta.
Jim Gill, President and CEO of Ford International Airport, says it’s a matter of “when, not if” that Grand Rapids gets a nonstop flight to the West Coast. However, securing the flights relies on a number factors.
“It’s going to happen. This market deserves it,” Gill said, adding that airport executives regularly meet with airline carriers to discuss additional service options. “(West Michigan is) one of the fastest growing metro areas in the U.S. The population growth we have, the job growth we have — those continue to play in our favor and we continue to monitor all of the markets we don’t have service to, but especially those that our community is most interested in.”
To get the direct West Coast flights, Grand Rapids must demonstrate there’s enough demand to make the flights sustainable, and airlines need to free up the necessary aircraft to make the flights possible, Gill said of the area’s challenges.
Moreover, Gill and others cite the relative ease with which West Michigan travelers can access the busy hubs of Detroit Metropolitan Airport and O’Hare International Airport in Chicago. That proximity proves to be a blessing and a curse for the Grand Rapids area as airlines tend to focus on those larger facilities.
“You can make the argument that from Grand Rapids to Detroit is a very short hop on a plane and from here to Chicago you can connect internationally anywhere,” said Birgit Klohs, president and CEO of The Right Place. “In a pinch you can drive. In Seattle you’d be driving two hours to get to the airport. Our airport has made great strides in the last few years.”
The Ford Airport in September completed the first phase of its $45 million “Gateway Transformation Project” that brought a consolidated security checkpoint, new restaurant and retail tenants and other amenities.
Passenger traffic continues to increase with each month, according to the airport’s reporting. Ford Airport also has attracted new services like Frontier Airline, which said this summer it plans to return to Ford Airport in December to offer nonstop flights to Denver and Orlando.
Nonetheless, Gill concedes that a lack of nonstop flights to the West Coast remains a gap in the airport’s overall service portfolio.
According to academic studies and site selectors who research the economic impact of air travel, that gap can affect a region’s ability to attract corporate headquarters, whether it’s the proposed $5 billion Amazon HQ2 or even smaller projects.
“In terms of airports in general and direct flights specifically, they’re incredibly valuable and important in the site-selection process,” said Julie Curtin, an executive vice president and partner in the Denver office of Development Counsellors International, a New York City-based tourism and economic development marketing firm. “But those direct flights really depend on the project or the company. Amazon was very specific and a lot of communities that didn’t meet the mark did apply. But different companies have different requirements. Corporate investment and investment attraction, it’s sort of a multi-layered sort of game.”
Curtin added that the availability of a skilled workforce and the overall cost of doing business tend to be the two most important factors for corporate investment, with transportation infrastructure such as airports being a slightly lower priority.
A 2016 study from Princeton University found that direct air travel between cities leverages greater economic development results and leads to more corporate investment.
“This seems to be driven by an intensification of business links, consistent with the idea that the ability to interact in person is crucial for the establishment of those links,” the study’s authors wrote. “In other words, the movement of people fosters the movement of capital, even though there is no technological reason why capital would need airplanes to move around.”
Gill with Ford Airport completely agrees with the study’s findings that the availability of connections leads to greater economic development activity.
As the West Michigan region grows, the airport must keep up with demand from passengers and airlines, both of which led to the investment in the Gateway project, he added.
“Building or modifying facilities just to do it doesn’t make a lot of sense,” Gill said. “For us, it’s a matter of we’re growing beyond our capabilities, and (the amenities) we’ve added makes us more efficient and functional.”