Cleveland Conducting Second Study to Gauge Future of Burke Lakefront Airport

The question has lingered for years. Bibb has made good on a campaign promise to explore possibilities

click to enlarge Burke Lakefront Airport is the subject of yet another study aiming to determine its worth—as an airport or site for future development - Aerial Agents
Aerial Agents
Burke Lakefront Airport is the subject of yet another study aiming to determine its worth—as an airport or site for future development
The city announced Monday that it's embarking on another study to determine the future of Burke Lakefront Airport. The question being whether Cleveland should stand by its current operation, which has seen yearly decreases in takeoffs and landings, or attempt to close it and use the 445 acres for something else.

Running through August and costing $115,000, it will be orchestrated by Econsult Solutions, Inc., a consultant based in Philadelphia. This study, a kind of partner to the city's other study commissioned in 2021 with a $205,946 price tag, make good on a campaign promise by Mayor Justin Bibb to evaluate Burke's potential.

The best way to find Burke's best use, Chief of Integrated Development Jeff Epstein said, was to tip toe into a long look at the small airport, which opened in 1947.

The city's goal "is to arm the administration and the mayor with some defensible analyses based on the best assumptions we can make now about conditions of the land," Epstein told Monday, "and the market, without spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on due diligence. We are intentionally not trying to get too far in the weeds," he added, "with the specifics of what may be feasible."

Epstein, along with Burke Operator Joel Woods, did not respond to requests for comment. Moreover, most of the phone numbers on Burke's website, including for managers like Woods and Burke's 12 tenants, are disconnected.

With a recent report from the Downtown Cleveland Alliance suggesting that Downtown's population could surpass 29,000 by 2032, it's likely Burke's reuse as petri dish for new housing, mixed-use development, or a park, could help the city reach that number sooner. And join the parade of potentially landscape-changing projects in various stages of planning around the city center, including the potential lakefront development that would create a land bridge to connect downtown to the lakefront nearby.

At 445 acres, Burke accounts for a fourth of Downtown's land.

The question of what to do with it has lingered since the late 1980s, when Burke's future was being reconsidered: Are those 445 acres even usable? After all, anecdotal evidence suggests that Burke's hard-surface runaway blankets heaps of ancient waste—car parts, washing machines, Cuyahoga River sediment — down below, which might make certain construction projects untenable.

"If you walked out behind my office, and started to dig, you'd come to trash," Kim Dell, director of the Cleveland National Air Show, told last April. "I don't know what's under here, and I don't know if you want to disturb that." (Bell didn't respond to a call from Scene for comment.)

If the city does decide to close Burke, it will most likely do so for an economic boost. Last year, the airport, which mostly services private business shuttles and medical emergency flights, operated at a deficit of some $640,000. Flights over the decades reflect this downward trend: from 2000 to 2021, Burke's traffic plunged 60 percent, from 100,321 takeoffs and landings to a meager 40,296.

The city said the analysis, along with an accompanying Airport Layout Plan, is due to the Federal Aviation Administration by the end of 2023.

As we and others have noted before, even once a city decides it wants to close an airport, it takes a fair amount of lobbying to the FAA and time afterward to actually close the doors.

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Mark Oprea

Mark Oprea is a staff writer at Scene. For the past seven years, he's covered Cleveland as a freelance journalist, and has contributed to TIME, NPR, the Pacific Standard and the Cleveland Magazine. He's the winner of two Press Club awards.
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