Burke Lakefront Airport Must Go
Burke Lakefront Airport Must Go

Twice a day, for nearly three years now, I’ve been fortunate, or unfortunate depending on your view, to drive by Burke Lakefront airport. During that time, I’ve seen less than ten takeoffs or landings. The recent reporting that 2018 saw a decrease AGAIN in the number of flights taking off and landing at the airport is hardly a surprise. The real surprise will be when we as a region, in order to send a signal that we’re moving forward and innovating, and that we are not beholden to the interests of a deep-pocketed minority, demand the closing and repurposing of Burke.

This is not a novel idea, nor am I the first or only to be making this pitch. Scene magazine has led the charge in recent years, and if you haven’t read Daniel McGraw’s article from last year, there aren’t enough words for me to encourage you to do so.

The city-owned Burke costs Cleveland somewhere between $1.5 mil-$2 mil to run every year. The apparent argument to calm residents who might otherwise bemoan this financial loss, is that the city recoups those costs by fees they charge at Hopkins. Well, what else could be done with that $1.5 million?

And, there is no reason to believe that the upcoming MLB or NBA All-Star Games will increase flights into and out of Burke especially since the RNC, 2016 World Series, and three NBA Finals series saw a decrease in flights during those months compared to previous years. (Again, check out Daniel McGraw’s article).

Excuses for keeping Burke open run the gamut, and we’ll examine those below, but I for one am tired of the leadership in the city and county telling us why we can’t do something instead of why we can.

Burke as it’s presently constituted isn’t wholly without value, that is true. Some travelers do make use of it and business executives and the private airline industry will continue to tell us about its enduring need. And, it’s possible we, the general public, might learn something in the near future about the inherent value of Burke that we don’t know about yet given the transparency-phobia of our governmental entities. But the crux of the matter is whether it would be better for the region and its inhabitants (and tourists) as something altogether different. I believe it would.

There is only one place you can routinely fly to nonstop from Burke and that’s Cincinnati. And it’s true that it’s no longer as EASY to fly nonstop from Hopkins to many other places; a result of the erosion in the city’s population and job base, which in many ways is a viscous circle. But anyway, the argument that Burke offers flights of intrinsic value doesn’t pass the smell test.

There is simply no longer any reason for 450 acres of lakefront real estate to be tied down to an airport that loses money. To put it into context, not only is this much bigger than Cedar Point as many in Ohio point out, it’s also larger than the acreage of Disneyland itself in Anaheim, California. More than 4 times the size of the original Disneyland park in fact.

Imagine the possibilities…
pic c/o Belt Magazine

What could be done with that land instead? Before we get to that, we must address the distinctly Cleveland mindset adhered to for decades by our political-civic leadership that argues that we CAN’T do something. In a complete refutation of George Bernard Shaw’s famous saying that “some men see things as they are and say why, (while) I dream things that never were and say why not,” too many of our regional leaders blend negative thinking with a type of provincialism and self-interest that has kept Cleveland standing still at best, and backsliding at worst.

So, in order to move ahead with Burke’s demise, we must first confront the negativists who don’t want Burke re-purposed.

  • Burke was once a landfill and can’t be repurposed. Lets dispose of this notion first. The EPA has not said this. And besides, it’s umm being used right now as an airport. But, another study could surely be commissioned. Nevertheless, we’ll accept the prevailing talking point that roughly 10% of the land area of Burke can’t be developed due to its previous use as a dumping site. That still means over 400 acres can be utilized.
  • “We still need a secondary airport.” No, we actually don’t. And if we do, we have one in Richmond Heights that is run by Cuyahoga County.
  • The wait-and-see approach. Members of the Jackson administration and others have been telling the populace that we should wait to see what happens with the land being developed north of First Energy Stadium and the area around the North Coast harbor. I commend Jackson and City Council for these steps in the right direction.
    But these very plans prove my broader point. They wouldn’t be working so hard to develop the land just north of the Browns’ stadium, or acknowledging the impact Edgewater Beach’s transformation has made in the Detroit-Shoreway neighborhood, if they didn’t think lakeshore property was inherently valuable. Of course it’s difficult for the Jackson administration to focus too much on Burke when certain members therein are giddily concentrating their attention on the boon they believe the Opportunity Corridor will provide. Meanwhile, i wonder whose opportunity that corridor is, but I digress.
  • The FAA argument. The most egregious argument is that it would take the FAA years to green-light the closing of Burke so we shouldn’t even bother. To most of us that would mean we better start tomorrow. To those in power, that means we shouldn’t take action. The very inability to think long-term in this city is the reason for the precipitous decline in population, jobs, and overall human outcomes. Simply put.
  • “It’s more convenient for me.” There are those, in places like Twitter and in the comments section of some of Scene’s articles on the topic of Burke, who truly feel it should be left open. Their argument? It’s so much easier for them. While they surely make up a vast minority of the people who give any thought to Burke’s status, they prove that the provincialism I discussed earlier isn’t exclusive to policymakers. I feel compelled to point out that there are people in Cleveland who have never flown on an airplane. And if they could afford to do so, they might not be able to afford the added expenses of wherever they’re flying to. So, spare me the stories about how nice it is that your car service can drop you off so close to the plane. You’ll get pretty close at the county airport too.

Exactly what should the redesign of Burke look like? Surely that topic will be heavily debated. My biggest hope is that the discussion will be open and transparent. The key is to make sure this area is made available in some capacity for all Clevelanders. Mixed-use development is crucial and the only way I, and others, would support it in the first place. For example, we don’t need another Millionaire’s Row a la the late 19th century, whereby only the wealthy would have access and thus shut off Clevelanders’ ability to make use of the shoreline itself. Middle income housing of some sort would also be a great addition to the land’s development as well. And, for those rightfully concerned about gentrification in our city’s neighborhoods, this type of development could also ease some of that.

If we need inspiration from other places, there are a number of starting points. For years now, Chicago has sought to repurpose nearly 600 acres of brownfield that once housed a steel mill near Lake Michigan. Though the original plans were scrapped last year, the long-range goals for redevelopment continue on and highlight the differing levels of vision being displayed here and elsewhere.

Thankfully there has been a slight parting in the clouds for those pushing for a repurposing of Burke. In a recent Crain’s article, Edward Rybka, the Chief of Regional Development for the city, admitted that the time is well nigh upon us to “address a master plan for Burke and its properties.” This is the one of the rare intimations from a member of Frank Jackson’s administration that a true consideration of Burke’s future is on the table. Admittedly it’ll probably be the duty of the next mayoral administration to take the lead on this issue, along with prodding from the hardly-innovative county government, to propel this issue forward . (Though County Council President Dan Brady is one of the few influential people in the area who’s evinced support for shutting Burke down). In the meantime, Cuyahoga County Council must also be pressured to make plans for the Richmond Heights airport to prepare for a post-Burke reality.

To get this movement started, and it should be viewed as a movement, we must contact our elected leaders–and yes that sounds almost trite considering how often we hear it–but in this particular interest it’s important to gain the attention of our Congressional representatives, for their influence is almost singularly crucial when it comes to lobbying the FAA to close Burke. In fact, we need to influence every representative we have to let them know you want Burke shuttered as an airport so that the grassroots nature of the goal is witnessed first-hand. And we must not accept the stock answer that it’s somebody else’s problem. So, don’t let your county council members, state senator, or state representative, tell you that Burke is owned by the city of Cleveland and thus it’s not their responsibility. This is the same type of thinking that blinded much of the city’s residents for a half-century and left us in the rut we’re presently in. While other cities who once had heavy manufacturing sectors, like Philadelphia, have adapted and moved forward economically, Cleveland has not.

Now is the time, not just to think large, but to prove we can think long-term. And, if the recent undertaking by CLASH, to get 10,000 signatures in one month on their lead-safe petition has taught us anything (even if you opposed their impressive efforts), it’s that action and change can happen here in Cuyahoga County.

To finally make proper use of our lakefront we must act now. And, oh yeah, in the near future we need to start thinking about our WOEFULLY under-developed river as well because we need to keep dreaming “things that never were and say, ‘why not.'”

See also: Alison Grant, and others at cleveland.com, who have also written some enlightening stuff over the past few years. As well as Belt Magazine who’s incredible work over the last few years has opened eyes about what’s taking place, for good and bad, in the Industrial Midwest.


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