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Wichita could look to other airports in name change debate

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Sunday, Dec. 1, 2013, at 10:54 p.m.
  • Updated Tuesday, April 8, 2014, at 12:20 p.m.

CLARIFICATION: A previous version of this story should have said that the group Citizens for Eisenhower Airport has proposed the new name “Wichita Dwight D. Eisenhower International (or National) Airport” for the current Wichita Mid-Continent Airport.

First, you need to understand that Wichita isn’t the first city in America to consider changing the name of its airport to honor a former president.

In fact, Wichita will be the third comparable-size city to do that in the past 15 years if it decides to change the name of the city’s primary airport from Wichita Mid-Continent Airport to Wichita Dwight D. Eisenhower International (or National) Airport.

Faced with a radio station campaign and a petition to rename the airport for Eisenhower, the Wichita City Council – which also acts as the Airport Authority – has formed a committee to look into the details of a potential name change.

To do that, they could draw on the experiences of Grand Rapids, Mich., which rechristened its airport Gerald R. Ford International Airport in 1999; or Little Rock, Ark., which last year changed its airport’s name to Bill and Hillary Clinton National Airport.

Officials of both airports who were involved in the changes said it doesn’t really bring in a noticeable amount of additional business.

But it can be fun.

In conjunction with the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library and Museum in Grand Rapids, the Ford airport threw a party in July for what would have been the late president’s 100th birthday.

“We did it as a way to kick off the weekend celebration they were having down at his museum,” said Phil Johnson, deputy executive director of the airport and the highest-ranking staff member still around from when the name was changed.

“A local store donated the cupcakes, and we had things that you could give out to the kids that had a history of the president and what he had done for this area and what his life entailed – and just fun and games, and we had some prizes,” he said.

“It was just having a birthday party for him and thanking our passengers for using the airport.”

‘OK, where’s that?’

The airport is in Grand Rapids but is owned by the county. Before the change to honor Ford, it was simply called Kent County International Airport, Johnson said.

The idea behind the name change was to put the airport on the map in a more recognizable fashion, he said.

“There was some concern that folks didn’t know where (Kent County) was,” he said. “Grand Rapids is the main city, that’s what people think of, but Kent County just doesn’t mean anything to most people outside this area.”

During debate over the name change, some suggested that there should be a geographic locator somewhere in the name, be it Kent County, Grand Rapids or even western Michigan. Grand Rapids is about 160 miles northwest of Detroit.

But county officials decided to just use the former president’s name, he said.

“That sort of leaves you with the same issue you had before because not a lot of folks realize Gerald Ford … was raised here,” Johnson said.

“And so then again, you have Gerald R. Ford International Airport, and it’s like, ‘OK, where’s that?’ So it really didn’t help us with the location standpoint.”

The cost of changing the name totaled about $250,000. Kent County, which owns the airport, paid for it.

“December 1999 is when the county commission made the change and then afterward determined that it was best to find out what this would cost,” Johnson said. “You not only have paper products, which is pretty easy to change, but all of our perimeter signage around the airport had to be changed, our monument signs coming into the airport.

“You just found there were numerous things that had the airport in it.”

Learning history

Naming an airport for a president also brings a lot of questions from travelers, Johnson said.

“A lot of people will say they didn’t realize Ford was from this area,” he said. “You can tell the history.

“You definitely as airport staff learn a little bit more about the beginnings and the history of your president than you knew before,” Johnson said, “which is not a bad thing.”

If Wichita changes its airport name, “they’ll get a lot of questions about, ‘Well, I didn’t know Eisenhower was from around here,’ and so you answer a lot of questions,” he said.

The Dwight D. Eisenhower Presidential Library and Museum in Abilene – about 100 miles north of Wichita – would be happy to help Wichita airport staff members answer those questions, said its communications director, Samantha Kenner.

As a branch of the National Archives and a federal agency, the library is maintaining an interested neutrality with regard to the name change, she said.

If the change does go through, the library would be happy to assist the airport with historical materials and information and host joint activities, as Grand Rapids did for Ford’s birthday. Eisenhower’s 125th birthday will come around in 2015, she said.

Little Rock change

Ford and Clinton are two of seven commercial airports named for presidents in the United States, according to CB Presidential Research Services.

The big three are John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York City; Ronald Reagan National Airport in Washington, D.C., and George Bush Intercontinental Airport in Houston, named for the first President Bush.

The smaller ones are Abraham Lincoln Capital Airport in Springfield, Ill., and Theodore Roosevelt Regional Airport in Dickinson, N.D.

The most recent presidential name change occurred in Little Rock. The change was voted in last year, and the airport held its formal dedication ceremony in May, attended by the Clintons. It was done in conjunction with a $67 million renovation of the airport terminal.

“We really felt like we should honor our first president from Arkansas – hopefully not the last,” chairwoman Kay Arnold said. Hillary Clinton made the cut because she was the first secretary of state from Arkansas, she added.

The name change was accomplished with minimal fuss, she said, estimating that the public sentiment ran about 10-1 in favor of the change.

“I think we got a whole lot of publicity and very little negative for it,” she said. “People who opposed it really didn’t have a strong argument why we wouldn’t do it, given the fact we’ve got a Reagan airport and a Bush airport and a Kennedy airport.”

Changing signs

In Wichita, one hurdle has been how to pay for changing the Mid-Continent signs on highways outside the airport’s boundaries – a cost that has been estimated as high as $140,000 and that can’t be covered using airport funds.

Little Rock handled that in a simple and expedient fashion: The city just left the highway signs the way they were.

“They just say Little Rock Airport,” Arnold said.

It doesn’t seem to have caused any confusion for people finding the airport. They will probably just change the name on the signs the next time they need to be repaired or replaced, she said.

Grand Rapids also took some time to change the road signs.

“You’ve got state highways, you’ve got county. … They all had their process,” Johnson said. “It wasn’t like they all rushed out the next day and weeks and made the change. That takes time.

“You get put in their cycle for when they go out and make sign changes.”

Reach Dion Lefler at 316-268-6527 or dlefler@wichitaeagle.com.

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