It’s complicated between Gary and Chicago

Longtime partner with Chicago, Gary may look to alter deal in running city’s airport.

February 17, 2012

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(WBEZ/Michael Puente)
Karen Freeman-Wilson, mayor of Gary, Ind., talks about the new flights at the Gary airport this week.

It’s been a big week for the Gary Chicago International Airport. Commercial flights began again earlier this week with Allegiant Air taking off from Gary’s lakefront airport to the sunny skies of Orlando, Florida. It marked the first time in nearly four years a commercial flight took off from the Gary airport. The Las Vegas-based Allegiant Air plans to fly out of Gary twice a week.

But Gary Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson, who took off in early January, wants more for her fledgling airport. She’s looking at perhaps privatizing the airport as one option or bringing in the Indianapolis Airport Authority to lend a hand in the long-struggling, underutilized airport, especially since it’s bidding on being the Chicago area’s third major airport.

"We’re exploring all options that will assist us in the expansion of the Gary airport," Freeman-Wilson told WBEZ this week.

Bring in another suitor, as in the Indianapolis Airport Authority, could alter the longstanding agreement between Chicago and Gary as it relates to the Gary airport. In 1995, then-Chicago Mayor Richard Daley hatched a plan to keep then Illinois Gov. Jim Edgar and state Republicans from seizing control of O’Hare International Airport and Midway Airport. By teaming up with the Gary Regional Airport, Chicago could keep control of O’Hare and Midway. For its sake, Gary airport officials would receive about $3 million a year from Chicago, some equipment and aviation expertise.

Chicago’s Department of Aviation has assisted Gary with its expansion efforts, including its ongoing $153 million project to extend Gary’s main runway. Airport officials contend by extending the runway it will be able accommodate larger jets.

The Federal Aviation Administration has given Gary a deadline of late 2013 to have the project complete. The project has had some starts and stops, with negotiations between the Gary airport and nearby railroad companies to reroute tracks being troublesome. The airport needs to reroute a set of tracks on the west side of the airport in order to remove a train embankment that’s in the way of the main runways expansion.

But any delay to the project could jeopardize federal funding.

But in the midst of this all-important expansion, Freeman-Wilson is contemplating this change in the Gary airport’s authority. One reason for this was to gain leverage with Indiana lawmakers so that they might approve a land-based casino in Gary. In January, Freeman-Wilson said discussions with Chicago had started, but a spokeswoman in the city’s Department of Aviation said she didn’t know anything about it. Freeman-Wilson continued this week in saying that negotiations with Chicago are ongoing.

"We continue our discussions with Commissioner (Rosemarie) Andolino and to try to see how that relationship can be leverage. We are certainly open to discussions with the Indianapolis Airport Authority. We are also looking at our options as it relates to privatization," she said.

But as of Friday, Chicago’s Department of Aviation had no knowledge of this development.

"We're not aware of any plans Mayor Freeman-Wilson may have related to the future of the Gary compact, but we're looking forward to working with her and her administration," Tammy Chase, Deputy Commissioner and spokeswoman with the Chicago Department of Aviation told WBEZ. "Chicago has historically enjoyed a great relationship with Gary and its leaders, and we're definitely supportive of the airport and its success."

Chase says Aviation Commissioner Rosemarie Andolino plans to meet soon with Karen Freeman-Wilson, although a specific date was not given.

“We'll be meeting with her very soon to discuss her vision and goals for Gary and the airport,” Chase said.

As of today, any effort to bring in the Indianapolis Aviation Authority to help run the Gary airport wouldn’t be tied to a land-based casino. Indiana State Sen. Earline Rodgers, D-Gary, who pushed for a land-based casino for Gary, says that effort is all but dead in this legislative session, which wraps up in early March.