Burke airport will stay open; City also looks to develop area

Mayor Frank Jackson ended years of speculation about the future of Burke Lakefront Airport by announcing Wednesday that the downtown airport would remain open indefinitely.

During a luncheon presentation at the Jones Day law firm, Jackson and airport director Ricky Smith said the decision comes after a yearlong consultant's study determined that closing Burke would be too disruptive and too costly for Cleveland Hopkins International Airport.

"It's a major reason why we don't want to close Burke," Smith said in an interview after the presentation.

The director of the city's two airports said the study found that if Burke closed, a new runway would have to be built at Hopkins to accommodate traffic diverted from the lakefront airport. Smith said such a project would cost about $1 billion - an expense the city cannot afford.

Also, adding more traffic at Hopkins would probably cause unwanted delays for commercial airlines such as Continental, which operates a hub at Hopkins, said Khalid Bahhur, who runs Burke airport.

"There are costs associated with delays," Bahhur said.

Advocates for closing Burke say planes could be diverted to other, smaller airports in the area such as the Cuyahoga County Airport in Richmond Heights. But some aviation experts say the county airport would probably need to add a runway to accept the additional traffic, which would be difficult because of the growth of nearby neighborhoods.

The mayor's public commitment to keeping Burke open comes six days after Continental Airlines unveiled plans for a $50 million expansion of its hub at Hopkins. The airline, a longtime proponent of keeping Burke open, will add more than 30 nonstop flights to 20 new cities by next summer.

Wednesday's news puts to rest uncertainty about Burke's future, created largely during the development of a 50-year lakefront plan by former Mayor Jane Campbell.

Many residents voiced support for closing Burke during the dozens of public meetings to help shape that plan. Some favored creating a park on the site to make the lake more accessible to bikers and pedestrians downtown.

But no final recommendation was made for Burke in the plan. Instead, it simply called for further study, which Jackson requested shortly after he took office last year.

Next month, as a result of the study, Smith and the mayor said they expect to get a 20-year master plan from consultant Landrum & Brown that will recommend how to increase business and develop land in and around the lakefront airport.

Bahhur said it's still being determined which land is suitable for development.

Smith has high hopes for the consultant's recommendations.

"This plan will position Burke as a national model for general aviation and mixed-use development combined," he said.

Councilman Joe Cimperman, who represents downtown, said Wednesday's news signals the city is ready to entertain ideas for development around the airport.

"With the mayor definitively saying that Burke will stay open, it's going to be a boost to the lakefront plan," he said.

Cuyahoga County Commissioner Jimmy Dimora, an advocate for closing Burke, said a plan to partially develop Burke is better than nothing.

"It's promising and positive, in my opinion, that they're at least talking about mixed-use development around the airport," Dimora said. "I would hope, though, someday that they would look at developing the whole tract of land, because it's prime lakefront land."

Also Wednesday, Smith and the mayor said they planned to create a Business Advisory Committee for Hopkins and Burke airports. Airport officials will tap the yet-to-be-named committee members to represent the needs of business travelers, Smith said.

Smith also talked of a long-term vision for Hopkins, which includes the creation of an "Airtropolis" business district on 600 acres surrounding Hopkins. Some of that land sits in the suburbs, Smith said.

To reach these Plain Dealer reporters: svinella@plaind.com, 216-999-5010

hgomez@plaind.com, 216-999-5405