Keeping a city alive and well when the economy makes a major shift requires generous touches of both creativity and courage.
In fact, the James Clements Airport has played an important role in the region since the Bay City Chamber of Commerce determined in 1926 that the community needed an airport. By 1928, the first hangar had been constructed and two years later, the Neo-Georgian style administration building was complete.
Local business leaders were instrumental in funding the airport’s construction, which was named for the son of Bay City industrialist William Clements, who donated land and $10,000 to the project. Clements’ son, Ensign James Renville Clements, was a World War I sea plane pilot with the U.S. Naval Reserve Force when he succumbed to influenza in 1918 while serving in France.
The airport’s rich history includes a period in the 1930s when Land-O-Lakes Airline offered passenger flights between Bay City, Detroit and St. Ignace, Mich. In the 1930s, the airport was also used for training airmen from nearby Selfridge Air Force Base, now Selfridge Air National Guard Base, to fly simulated attack runs over the region’s industrial areas. With the coming of World War II, the airport became a training base for the Civilian Pilot Training Program that provided the U.S. military a pool of potential military pilots.
In 2020, when longtime airport manager Doug Dodge retired after 32 years, Jeff Koons took the reins, moving into the third-floor apartment in the administration building, upholding a long-standing tradition of the manager living at the airport.
According to a 2020 Michigan Department of Transportation Office of Aeronautics study, the airport’s economic impact was estimated at nearly $5 million locally and more than $5 million statewide, with about 20,000 people visiting the airport annually.
Under Koons’ management and the help of Bay City administration, the airport is being prepared to grow those numbers. The city has invested in improvements to the administration building’s heating and cooling systems, its roof and lighting while also adding high speed fiber-optic internet. As a class B general aviation airport, traffic includes private aircraft as well as corporate planes, some of which are housed in hangars at the airport. Koons said expanding and resurfacing the runways will hopefully attract larger corporate jets, which will bring more travelers and business to the area. “Besides Bay City, Frankenmuth is just about 15 minutes from here,” he said, referring to the Michigan city that has a reputation for all things Christmas.
“This is pretty much a 24/7 job,” he said, noting his days include making sure the lights on the runways are in good working order, that there is plenty of fuel for visiting aircraft, that the hangar is clean and the taxiways are clear. During the Michigan winter, Koons clears snow from the two intersecting runways and four taxiways, and in the summer, he cuts lots of grass on the 260-acre property.
He also makes sure visitors have a fresh cup of coffee. “I’m often up until 4 or 5 in the morning, so before I get a few hours of sleep, I put on a pot of coffee so pilots have a fresh cup when they get here.”
The coffee the Navy veteran serves is Black Rifle Coffee, a veteran-owned company that supports military veterans, law enforcement officers and first responders.
Originally from Michigan, Koons and his wife heard about the food in Bay City before they arrived from California. “The food here in Bay City is amazing. It’s a diverse culture with German, Polish, Italian and all kinds of other ethnic foods available. And they all are really great.”
The Bay City food and festival scene has contributed to the economy’s transition from industrial to tourism for the city of 33,000.
Originally known as “Lower Saginaw,” Bay City was established in 1837 and incorporated as a city in 1865. Benefitting from the deeper waters where the Saginaw River flows into Lake Huron, Bay City became a busy industrial community with a robust lumbering, milling and shipbuilding economy. The Defoe Shipbuilding Company, which closed in 1975, built destroyer escorts, guided missile destroyers and patrol craft for the U.S. Navy.
The area, which was once populated by the Chippewa nation, is claiming a 21st century space in the historical tourism business with its Antique Toy and Firehouse Museum, the 19th century Saginaw River Rear Range Light and the Bay County Historical Society and Museum, which houses galleries devoted to the area’s maritime history and its early settlers and a theater that shows documentaries about the Bay City area history and notable citizens.
Couple that with plenty of antique stores and visitors can spend a day stepping into Bay City history.
Bay City has also made a mark in the ecotourism business with the Tobico Marsh wildlife refuge, which sits on the Great Midwestern Migratory Flyway, and the Quanicassee Wildlife Area, along with lakeside and riverfront beaches and parks.
Its lively restaurant scene complements an equally robust calendar of festivals that include Rockin’ the River, a festival of powerboat races and country music concerts traditionally held in early July; the Hop Riot Beer Fest in August; and the River of Time Living History Encampment, a timeline of the area’s history from the First Nations to the American Revolution and the Civil War through the Vietnam War. The encampment draws about 1,000 reenactors in late September to entertain the 60,000 visitors with presentations, food, crafts and music spanning Bay City’s history.
The city also hosts tall ships from around the country for the Tall Ships Challenge, and Ballads and Brews, a celebration of maritime music in July.
Koons also envisions having special events at the airport like barbecues, fly-in breakfasts and food truck events. He said he is surveying pilots about what they would like to have available while visiting the airport and hopes to add a food concession in the administration building.