Gary mayor still believes airport can fly

Gary’s mayor says despite recent setbacks, airport will take off one day.

July 9, 2013

(WBEZ/Michael Puente)
A private jet refuels at the Gary Chicago International Airport.

There are still deals to be had if you want to fly from Chicago to Orlando on the cheap this summer. But you better hurry.

Allegiant Airlines’ flights from the Gary Chicago International Airport to the home of Disney will end by mid-August, leaving Gary once again without a commercial passenger airline.

And if that wasn’t enough bad news for the struggling airport, a long awaited $166 million project to extend the main runway has been stranded at the gate. Slated to be done by December, the project may not be completed until fall 2014 at the earliest. That’s because some lingering industrial contamination at the site will need a larger cleanup effort than first realized.

But Gary Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson isn’t ready to admit defeat just yet.

“Am I dejected or distraught over the fact that we are seeing a delay in the process? No, it just makes me that much more determined to see it to its completion,” Freeman-Wilson told WBEZ today. “We have every reason to know it’s going to get done. It just won’t get done when we originally said it will get done. That’s probably the most frustrating part for me.”

Freeman-Wilson announced last week that the ground contamination in the path of the runway expansion is worse than anticipated. The Northwest Indiana Regional Development Authority, a state-backed agency, and the Federal Aviation Administration are the primary funders of the $166 million project to extend the airport’s main 7,000-foot runway by 1,900 feet.

Wilson says the city and northwestern Indiana have heavy industrial legacies that carry sensitive and unexpected environmental issues that must be resolved. She says the city and the airport are working with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Indiana Department of Environmental on remediation strategies.

The logic behind extending the main runway is to allow larger jets to take off and land at the Gary airport, which would put it in a better position to attract major airlines. Despite losing Allegiant and the runway expansion delay, Freeman-Wilson says it hasn’t dampened the enthusiasm to privatize the airport. On Tuesday, a committee was continuing to review proposals submitted by eight firms to run the airport in a public-private partnership with the city.

“The importance of this is not just the airport territory that we’re really focusing on, it’s the airport and surrounding community,” Freeman-Wilson said. “That’s why I think people are really interested and excited about investing.”

John Clark, the former CEO of the Indianapolis Airport Authority, has been hired to oversee Gary’s privatization efforts. At a rate of $245 an hour, Clark will also oversee the runway expansion and develop a business plan. Gary’s airport board is also considering borrowing up to $35 million to help complete expansion of the airport’s runway. That money will be paid back from part of the $166 million that the city will receive from the FAA in 2015.

Still, Freeman-Wilson knows there are those who doubt that the Gary Chicago Airport will ever really fly. But she says, plans are moving forward, even if people are unaware of it.

“We’ve made more progress in the last year than was made in the last 10 years,” Freeman Wilson said. “If they drive by the Gary airport, they will see a new runway coming out of the pavement.”

The Gary Chicago airport continues to host private charter service, the the corporate jet fleet for Boeing Corporation, as well as being home to an Indiana National Guard post. The City of Chicago also remains a critical partner in Gary airport’s future. The city provides up to $3 million a year to Gary that comes directly from passenger fees for those flying out of Midway or O’Hare airports.

Follow WBEZ’s Northwest Indiana reporter Michael Puente on Twitter @MikePuenteNews.