Grant could expand Lewis University Airport


By Nick Reiher
STAFF WRITER

NASCAR events: Facility needs more space to accommodate expected planes

ROMEOVILLE - As local police officials try to figure out how to get everyone in and out of the area for the new NASCAR season next summer, Chris Lawson is working on another kind of gridlock.

Lawson, director of the Lewis University Airport, was told he could expect some 140 turboprop planes to land at the airport for the NASCAR events on Joliet's far south side next July.

That's a problem because Lewis Airport has a 12,000-square-foot apron that offers space for only 10 aircraft. They can bump that up to 60 or 70, he said, "but that's having to use our parking lot for planes." Fourteen NASCAR reservations already are in at Lewis Airport.

The Joliet Regional Port District, which owns Lewis Airport, has applied to the Federal Aviation Administration for an emergency grant of nearly $3 million to expand the current airport apron, which Lawson says is basically a parking lot for planes.

'Tighten up the buckles'

Though a person standing on the taxiway at Lewis Airport can see the new raceway being built some 15 miles to the south, Lawson, who admits he's not a NASCAR fan, didn't think much about the new track.

Then he got word from state transportation officials that he might want to consider increased air traffic just like state, county and Joliet police are looking at ground gridlock. So Lawson called a few tracks to ask. He recalls the response he got from one guy in the South.

"He said, 'Son, you had better tighten up the buckles on your bootstraps because you're going to get hit with a hell of a lot of airplanes,'" Lawson said, chuckling.

To that end, Lawson produced a copy of an FAA-NASCAR Partners for Safety brochure that listed the approximate number of flights going in and out of the airport near Talladega, Ala., where a NASCAR event was held a few weeks ago. Reservations for takeoffs and landings had to be scheduled to accommodate more than 750 operations the three days before the race and for more than 1,000 the day of the race.

The publication also noted that delays of two or three hours for departures could happen in the after-race gridlock, just like cars caught in the after-race traffic on the ground.

Race revenue

As such, Lawson is concerned about possibly not getting the emergency grant. With a 5,700-foot runway, Lewis Airport is the only one in Will County that could handle the 19-passenger turboprop planes the NASCAR race would bring in. Preliminary work is being done for another runway that will be 6,500 feet long when it's done in three years or so.

The closest other airport is DuPage, Lawson said. It would be a shame if the planes had to go there, he said, because not only would Lewis lose the gasoline sales so crucial to the airport operation, but Will County hotels, restaurants and other businesses could lose that share of the NASCAR-related revenues as well.

In a letter from Ronnie Fountain of NEMCO Motorsports, Lawson learned that even though the event happens only once or twice a year, each one can generate some $40 million into the local economy. Fountain also noted that the 140 figure for visiting aircrafts could be low when you consider that estimate doesn't include fans and sponsors.

But Lawson said Fountain also has told him that officials at the larger Aurora Airport already have contacted him about using their facility instead.

Lest anyone think the $3 million apron would be used only a few days a year for NASCAR events, Lawson said there are a growing number of planes coming in for various local functions, such as the drag races and the Western Open in nearby Lemont.

A growing number of businesses also is interested in using the airport, Lawson added. More than 20 Fortune 500 companies that own and operate aircraft are located within 20 minutes of the airport, he said.

Also, Lawson said the airport officials soon must relocate 150 aircraft storage positions that are too close to the existing runway. The proposed apron expansion would help with that as well.

They also could use a temporary control tower to help with all the air traffic that NASCAR weekend next July, and the federal government is trying to find some support for that as well.

Federal money

Under the apron project, the federal government would pay 90 percent, or about $2.7 million, the state 5 percent and the port authority 5 percent. But that 90 percent isn't certain, Lawson said. They have been in touch with U.S. Rep. Jerry Weller, R-Morris, but Lawson said the congressman's office has given the project only a 50-50 chance.

Reed Wilson at Weller's office said they would continue to work for a way to get the funds. Lawson said they would need the money by next spring so they can start the apron work in time to have it done for the summer race schedule.

Assistant City Editor Nick Reiher can be reached at (815) 729-6050 or via e-mail at nick.reiher@copleypress.com.