The Park Township board of trustees last week voted to continue the operation of the Park Township Airport, a field that dates to the 1930s.
An attempt to shut down the airport in the 1990s failed, but local officials have been reluctant to invest resources in the facility since then, said Kyle Lewis, Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association’s Great Lakes Region manager.
The township board plans to vote on a Park Township AirPark Master Plan within the month. In the interim, the airport will continue to be maintained for aeronautical use, Lewis said. Local pilots use it primarily for sport aviation and personal business.
Currently, there are approximately 10 aircraft based at the field, Lewis added.
The plan, written by Township Manager Howard Fink, recognizes the airport’s success requires support of township residents beyond the local aviation community. A $1.7 million revitalization project, which would run in three phases over 10 years, calls for an aviation-themed airpark with a playground, splash pad, aviation museum, stargazing observatory, community building with a STEM lab and more features designed to appeal to residents and tourists.
"The plan takes concepts that have been debated for decades, expands on them and provides the collective wisdom of a large stakeholder group to identify the most appropriate implementation strategy,” Fink said.
But Park Township Airport is first and foremost an airport and must invest in improvements to be eligible for state grant funding. Over the years, the township has been acquiring avigation easements in order to remove a displaced threshold and achieve and maintain a proper 20-in-1 slope for a safe airport approach.
According to the master plan, the airport needs only three additional easements to achieve the minimum lineal feet for General Utility status, which is 1,800 lineal feet. Once complete, the township can apply to the Michigan Department of Transportation for General Utility status, which will make the township eligible to leverage state dollars to fund runway improvements.
Lewis said funding sources for the project to upgrade airport infrastructure and add hangars would be a combination of local funds, grants, private investments, levies and the possible state funding.
“Obviously, the vision is to bring activity back, bring in more aviation-oriented business,” Lewis said. “That’s something all small airports struggle with … the goal is to make the airport operate in the black or at least break even. It’s difficult for small airports. Their income comes from fuel sales, hangar rentals, etc.”
Larger commercial airports, by contrast, have more means of income like parking fees, vendor leases and passenger facility charges.
Park Township Airport began in the 1930s as a private airfield and the brainchild of aviator “Peg” Malone, who had aspirations for regular passenger service between Milwaukee and New York, with stops at Holland, Detroit, Cleveland, Buffalo and Syracuse. Unfortunately, the Great Depression hit, and the plan was shelved.
The Michigan Aeronautics Commission urged the city of Holland to develop its own municipal airport in 1933, but voters rejected the ballot proposal to fund the airfield. This prompted Bill Connelly, representing the Holland Chamber of Commerce, to encourage the Park Township board of trustees to purchase the airfield at 152nd and Ottawa Beach Road, becoming Park Township Municipal Airport.
Following aviation infrastructure upgrades at the airport, the federal government approved the Hope College pilot training program in late 1939. During World War II, over 100 students were enrolled in Hope’s GI flight training program. The airport also was used as a helicopter training ground for the United States’ war effort.
Park Township Airport was a well‐used asset in the Holland region until the late 1970s. In 1979, Park Township airport went through two airport managers. One resigned because the airport was unable to turn a profit. Around this time, Park Township leadership began discussing the difficulty in continuously maintaining and operating an airport. In 1981, Holland Township shifted its support to the acquisition of the Tulip City Airport on the city’s south side, which eventually became West Michigan Regional Airport.
The success of West Michigan Regional serving strictly corporate aircraft left Park Township to cater to recreational aviation uses. Lack of financial resources, a shrinking market segment, deteriorating infrastructure and higher hanger rates than surrounding airports led to a slow, steady decline of the Park Township Airport, according to the airport’s history.