HOLLAND- The West Michigan Regional Airport, once the Tulip City Airport, has evolved from a private grass-strip runway next to a barn in the 1940s, to the busy, growing airport it is today.
In 2016, it could look different still. Last month the West Michigan Airport Authority approved the $500,000 purchase of 15 acres from Johnson Controls Inc. The property is adjacent to the airport and will be the site of a business center that will house operations for the airport’s fixed base operator, Tulip City Air Service, and airport authority. It will serve as a welcome center for people flying in as well, according to The Holland Sentinel.
“It will all relate to the day-to-day operations of the airport,” said WMAA Manager Greg Robinson, including car rentals, customer waiting and pilot facilities as well.
The land and use of the property has changed over the decades, said Ron Ludema, airport manager, who has worked on the property since the 1960s and lived there for several years.
The growth and changes at the airport have been the response to its increased use by local businesses.
Ludema remembers the first office for Tulip City Air was in the corner of an old barn on the property next to the grass runway. At one point, he lived near it in a small trailer.
The evolution started as more and more of Holland’s growing businesses required charter service. The office was moved to the small trailer and Ludema bought a home next door.
Growth and use picked up in the 1980s as the area’s top businesses grew, they bought planes, hired pilots and built hangars. Every time Ludema lost a charter customer, he wondered how much longer he’d be in business. However, new customers kept coming in and they still do, he said.
Eventually his home was turned into the business office of the airport and it remains the office today. His personal office was once his bedroom. The original bathroom is a storage closet. The living room is men’s and women’s restrooms. The front office was the kitchen. It’s been renovated, added on to, fixed and bandaged together.
“We’re constantly doing repairs,” Ludema said, whether it’s windows, ductwork, or pest control. The old house will not be spared or repurposed, but demolished. “We’re at a point where we shouldn’t spend money on it.” In 1978 Ed Prince, Prince Corp., bought the airport from Gradus Geurink who was ready to retire. In 1982, Prince offered it to the city of Holland, seeing the need for a public airport that could handle corporate traffic.
That feat wasn’t easy. It was highly contested by people who believed no tax dollars should be spent on the airport. An argument that persists today. Those who supported it argued it was an important piece of infrastructure for the business community. The same feeling today’s backers still share.
Federal money couldn’t be used on a private airport though. It had to become public and eventually enough private funding was raised to match a federal grant to buy it and the airport grew some more. The hardscrabble runway of gravel and a thin layer of asphalt that replaced the grass was replaced again and lengthened, complete with instrument landing system. Ludema and Tulip City Air were retained as the fixed base operator.
Though it was owned by the city, the biggest problem the airport faced was never having the matching funds for state or federal grants, Robinson said. The airports growth was stunted with no way to secure outside funding.
In 2008, voters in Park Township and the cities of Holland and Zeeland approved the formation of the WMAA with the smallest possible tax levy of 0.1 mill. It was renewed in 2012. Voters in Holland Township turned it down both times.
The millage is financial stability for the airport, Robinson said. The airport is used by regional employers. It made sense to make sure the local municipalities were involved.
Prior to forming the WMAA, the first question by the state and federal government was “do you have the matching funds?” Robinson said. “They know that we’re stronger now.”
Now, the WMAA will pay roughly 10 percent of the overall cost to build the business center and apron.
“We’ll be able to build it debt free, which lessens the burden on taxpayers,” Robinson said.
The airport is used by area businesses that are too many to count. It is an economic generator that is a success, said Tim Klunder, Zeeland city manager and WMAA chairman.
“I got to believe that is because the airport is here,” he said.
The airport works regularly with local caterers for flight meals and hotels for pilot lodging, Ludema said.
The airport isn’t used by top corporate management, Klunder said, but it’s used by quality control, fix it teams, salesmen and more. He and other men believe some of the success of the businesses using the airport is their ability to respond to their customers quickly by using the airport. It’s contributed to the growth of the businesses, the airport and the Holland area.
The business center is the next step in that growth. It is expected to be about 7,500 square feet, Robinson said. The design phase is just beginning, construction should start early next summer and the facility could open in 2016.