There are many types of ground-breakings. There are the unceremonious ones with no politicians in sight, and there are others where politicians line up to synchronize their shovel-holding for watching cameras. And then there’s the kind that Jesse Jackson Jr. wants to have on April 21. This one, which Jackson calls a “people’s groundbreaking,” is a symbolic move to regain traction on his drive for an airport in Peotone.
Jackson has spent years trying to transform a farm in Will County into a massive national airport named after President Abraham Lincoln, and he hopes some showmanship will break a political logjam.
“We will be there symbolically maybe with dozens — maybe even with a couple of hundred — people who agree that it’s time for us to move forward on this project,” Jackson said.
Politically speaking, Jackson is feeling confident and it may be as good a time as any for him to revive the long-standing airport issue. He handily won this month’s Democratic primary in Illinois’ 2nd Congressional District, an area that was redistricted recently and includes the site for the proposed airport.
Jackson points out that the state of Illinois already bought more than 2,000 acres of land for the project, and, he claims, he’s nearly finished with lining up private financing.
Jackson says with some political will, the jobs and economic growth should start soon.
“For the first time the global economy will be on the South Side of Chicago and the South Side of Chicago will have access to the global economy and that’s where the jobs are,” Jackson said. “Right now, the global economy is out by O’Hare and beyond. And so these are the hopes and dreams of a region.”
Would groundbreaking end political fight or rekindle it?
From another vantage, Jackson seems to be jumping the gun with his “people’s groundbreaking.” The federal government hasn’t approved a new airport for Peotone and it might not weigh in for at least two years.
And, it’s not clear where things stand politically. If Will County’s own politicians have any say, the airport will come later — much later.
“This idea of coming in and having a groundbreaking I think is just disrespect to the citizens of eastern Will County. It’s disrespectful to the municipalities out there,” said Will County Executive Larry Walsh. He especially scoffs at Jackson’s claim that construction could start soon, maybe even by June.
“You know, making those kinds of statements is just irresponsible,” he said. “Nobody is going to begin construction of an airport.”
Walsh also points out that the Federal Aviation Administration hasn’t officially ruled on the question of whether the area actually needs a new airport.
Still, the paramount issue is one of control: Walsh wants state lawmakers to authorize an airport board made up of people primarily from Will County itself. Jackson’s plan includes outsiders, including representatives from Cook and Kankakee counties.
“Our Will County residents are going to be the ones most affected by this,” Walsh said. “Their quality of life is going to change. Some of these people, their families have been around here for a 150 years, and I have a responsibility to represent them in their quality of life for the development of this airport.”
So, where is Springfield in all of this?
The state of Illinois has been behind a Peotone airport for years, but the pace has been glacial, with progress coming in fits and starts. Ill. Gov. Pat Quinn is offering major moral support.
“We have a metropolitan area of Chicago that’s an underserved area of the south. Having an airport in Peotone is important and we shouldn’t forget it,” Gov. Quinn said.
But Quinn’s statements don’t come with concrete, financial backing, and there’s a new wrinkle in the discussion about regional airports. Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel is now pushing plans for a fourth runway at O’Hare, which is already expanding. The proposal, which Emanuel laid out earlier this week, is to boost O’Hare’s capacity by 300-thousand passengers and reduce delays by 80 percent. The mayor argued that expanding O’Hare would be cheaper than the other alternatives. Not so with Peotone.
“I’m opposed to it,” he said. “That’s why I want to make sure that O’Hare is modernized.”
How big could it really be?
One thing that hasn’t come up so far is whether Jackson’s vision of a mammoth airport is realistic. Airlines are experiencing rapidly increasing fuel costs, and they’ve already questioned whether there’s enough demand at O’Hare and Midway, let alone Peotone. Plus, there’s another airport in Gary, Ind., that’s already running. It, like O’Hare, is already undergoing expansion.
All of this has Dr. Joseph Schwieterman of DePaul University questioning how much more airport capacity we need.
“There’s just no question that Peotone and Gary are really fighting for part of the same piece of pie and probably both can’t succeed,” Schwieterman said. “The market’s just too tough. Southwest expanding, Milwaukee and O’Hare’s being enlarged. There just isn’t enough market to go around for everything.”
But all those things don’t necessarily knock Peotone out of the airport sweepstakes. Schwieterman says a massive airport in Peotone might be out of the works, but, “the good news for Peotone is a micro small airport is in the realm of possibility, something very small: one runway, a couple of gates.”
Rep. Jackson is not buying the idea that Peotone should shoot for a small project, and he’s more than willing to draw out some heavy rhetoric for his cause.
“A generation ago there were those who blocked schoolhouse doors to stop progress. You really can’t stop progress,” Jackson said. “It doesn’t work. History is replete with figures who stood in the way of social, political and economic progress and that’s exactly what this airport represents.”
Jackson said he’s undeterred, and invites everyone to come to Peotone for his so-called people’s groundbreaking on April 21. He does say, though, that people should bring their own shovels.