Airport Evolves After Starting as a Grass-Strip Runway

October 2014 – By Annette Manwell, HollaJet brown ranchndSentinel.com  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. Earlier this 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.

“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.

Office in a Barn
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.”

Private to Public
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.

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