On a chilly Saturday morning back in April, U.S. Rep. Jesse Jackson, Jr. stood in the middle of a cornfield in eastern Peotone. He was there to host a symbolic groundbreaking for a new airport he calls Abraham Lincoln National Airport.
“The point is it’s the people’s groundbreaking. We still need to have a ground breaking with the politicians at a later date when the deal is done. But right now, the ministers, they are the point,” Jackson said back in April at the groundbreaking.
A few hundred people made up mostly of ministers and church-goers from Chicago’s South side boarded buses to take the 30-mile trek south to Peotone.
At the time, Jackson touted the project as a way to bring thousands of construction jobs to his district. He proposed to start with a $200 million, 12,000 foot-long runway and a 5-gate terminal. Jackson hoped the airport would eventually be three times the size of Chicago’s O’Hare International.
“We have found developers who are willing to put up $700 million of their own dollars. They want to be on this land by June 1st of this year,” Jackson said.
Well, June 1st came and went.
And today, the site is still filled with rows and rows of corn fields.
But Jackson isn’t the only elected official who sees big things for this patch of farmland.
“Transportation is always the pivotal part of a growing economy in a county that is going to be able to succeed,” said Will County Executive Larry Walsh.
Walsh has all long promoted the benefits of a south suburban airport.
“To create jobs and to have good paying jobs and to bring the quality of life that our people expect and deserve,” Walsh said.
The question though, is whose people?
Congressman Jackson wants the Peotone airport to fuel job creation not only for Will County, but Cook County’s south suburbs.
He also wants those areas to have a say in operating the airport.
But that’s a non-starter for Will County.
Walsh wants Will County to have control of any airport that’s built.
“If that doesn’t take place and if we can’t commitment to having that take place, then I don’t know whether we need the airport,” Walsh said.
Up until now, the debate over who gets control of a future airport has been hypothetical. But recently, the FAA approved the exact location of an airport runway and terminal in Peotone. Now, Walsh hopes to meet with Governor Pat Quinn and the Illinois Department of Transportation later this month to push for Will County to oversee the airport.
“He understands the issue but we just can’t get him to commit to our way of thinking in regards to our plan,” Walsh said.
Jackson’s continued absence could make it easier for Walsh to get his point across to Quinn.
“There is no question that Jackson’s illness. He is kind of the inspirational leader. He’s a charismatic guy. He’s in congress of course. He can make things happen there,” DePaul University professor Dr. Joseph Schwieterman, an authority on urban transportation and economic development in Chicago.
“I think you might say Will County is gradually you might say gaining the edge. Without Jackson, there’s a lot of energy that’s going to be sucked out of the Abraham Lincoln Airport faction.”
But some disagree.
“Because of this unfortunate illness for the Congressman [Jackson], there are some people who want to be opportunistic about this whole situation,” said Al Penn is chairman of the Friends of the Abraham Lincoln National Airport Commission (ALNAC).
Penn says that with or without Jackson, ALNAC’s mission remains the same.
“Congressman Jackson, yes is a singular voice; a very powerful, very dynamic voice in his own right but there are other people who can talk about the viability of an airport,” Penn said.
Penn argues since ALNAC is a state-sanctioned commission set up to operate an airport, Quinn should give them control.
Besides, he says, people from the south suburbs – like the ones bused in for Jackson’s groundbreaking – deserve to have first crack at airport construction jobs. After all, Penn says, they did support Quinn’s re-election two years ago.
“When do they get rewarded for their loyalty for Governor Pat Quinn,” Penn said.
Penn believes Jackson will be coming back soon.
Will County’s Walsh scoffs at the notion that it’s trying take advantage of Jackson’s being out of the picture right now.
Walsh says Jackson’s absence isn’t playing a role in Will County’s moves.
“No, that’s doesn’t play a role either,” Walsh says with a laugh at his office inside the Will County Government Complex in downtown Joliet, just a couple of blocks from where the high-profile murder trial of Drew Peterson is being held.
Meanwhile, DePaul’s Schwieterman says this airport squabble is turning into a circus which doesn’t help either side’s cause.
“The whole thing is rather silly in a lot of ways. The spoils of an airport really flow to a whole region regardless of who controls it,” Schwieterman said.
As for Gov. Quinn, he says if the state can figure out pension reform there’s no reason why they can’t find common ground on the South Suburban airport.
“We’re trying to do pension reform. If we can do that I think we can also climb another mountain and get everybody singing out of the same hymn book when it comes to the third airport that we need in Peotone, Illinois,” Quinn said last week in Chicago. “It’s a bustling area of economic activity.”
Where’s the City of Chicago in all this you may ask?
Mayor Rahm Emanuel has his own airport dreams. He wants billions to expand and modernize O’Hare.
And once that’s done, Emanuel says there’s no need for an airport in Peotone.