March 26, 2001

Gary airport needs regional direction, Indiana officials say

Monday, March 26, 2001

By Kristi O'Brien

Ask Northwest Indiana's leaders if more needs to be done to promote the Gary/Chicago Airport and most will say yes.

But ask them what the solution is, and they'll point to someone else.

Northwest Indiana is "foolish," said state Rep. Vernon Smith (D-Gary). "(A thriving) airport would turn this area around. Everyone ought to be speaking for that airport."

U.S. Sen. Richard Lugar (R-Ind.) thinks there needs to be "a very concerted support offered by business and community leaders. Someone in Lake County, someone in the state of Indiana has to bring someone together."

But no one has taken the lead.

When it comes to the existing Gary/Chicago Airport vs. the proposed third airport in Peotone, officials say it's not an either/or situation. Still, federal funds, passengers and airlines are at stake.

In Gary, an airport with runways, airplanes and passenger service already exists.

Gary Mayor Scott King says the city is working to do its part. It contributed more than $2 million to the airport this year that has helped build a new maintenance hangar and complete other expansion projects.

"We've been doing a lot of work, but it's time to be higher profile in the work we're doing," he said.

In Illinois, some residents, business leaders and politicians organized years ago, and they continue to preach about the benefits of Peotone as the site for a new regional airport.

Supporters are fighting on Capitol Hill to sell the idea of putting a major transportation hub in Peotone.

On the Hoosier side, many say things are quiet.

"It doesn't seem logical," said Larry Seibert, assistant marketing professor at Indiana University Northwest, regarding the lack of vocal support. "It seems like we have an opportunity here that's going by the wayside."

The problem

Opinions run the gamut as to why Illinois voices seem louder and what effect that has.

"I'm guessing the people in Northwest Indiana don't recognize the benefits of the airport as far as a tax base, as far as more revenue for the city, as far as more convenience for Northwest Indiana air travelers," Seibert said. "I don't know what else would explain it."

Smith said it's an example of promotional efforts that should have already happened.

"The governor (in Illinois), the mayor of that city and the congressmen of that area understand economics," he said. "(Officials here) need to understand the economics ... and push that."

Moses Dilts, vice president of the Gary/Chicago Airport board, said airport officials have failed in regional communication efforts.

"We need someone to head that up to make that happen," Dilts said. "It needs to be regional rather than just the city of Gary."

Lugar believes Northwest Indiana politics is quashing support. He said rifts between leaders of different communities could hinder expansion.

"Its viability lies with political cooperation in Lake County," he said.

U.S. Rep. Peter Visclosky (D-Ind.) said he has always supported the airport and believes community and business leaders are doing their part.

"As we approach the development of the airport, as well as the problems that occur, the people who need to be involved do get involved," he said.

Additionally, he said if talk seems louder in Illinois, it doesn't mean the Gary airport is less viable.

"We have in Northwest Indiana a commercial airport that has seen a great increase in activity and investment because of the overwhelming support of the business, labor and political community," he said.

But Dan Lowery, executive director of the Northwest Indiana Quality of Life Council, and Jeff Williams, executive director of the Gary Chamber of Commerce, both say someone needs to take control. Both say their organizations are logical leaders.

Williams said the chamber has discussed forming a group to give the airport a stronger push. "There is probably a need for a coalition that would encompass both the public and private sector, including elected officials."

What Illinois has done

Similar groups already exist in Illinois.

One of them called Keep Chicago and Illinois Flying recently traveled to Washington to lobby for a third airport in Peotone.

The group, which meets about once a month, includes representatives from area chambers of commerce, mayors, village managers, economic development groups and politicians.

Ed Paesel, who has worked on the Peotone proposal for about 15 years, said the group formed to coordinate efforts of all the organizations involved.

Paesel is executive director of the South Suburban Mayors and Managers.

"Better coordination generally provides better results," he said. "We might send a letter signed by six organizations to the governor or secretary of transportation so they know there is wide support."

Paesel said the group also generates resident support so legislators can take an "aggressive approach" knowing they are backed by their constituents.

The group also works with state and federal legislators, and it was those contacts who helped organize the recent trip to Washington, where the group met with the transportation secretary.

Michael Seward, president of the Chicago Southland Chamber of Commerce, said the idea is to get the airport built and then to remain in existence to ensure its success. "We know it's going to be very successful, but we'll make sure it is promoted," he said.

Illinois also has the Third Airport Clearinghouse, which Paesel helped form with the Illinois Department of Transportation, to collect and disseminate information.

Should Gary do more?

If Peotone is built, the immediate effect on the Gary/Chicago Airport is unclear. Some say it would be at least 20 years before an airplane could take off from the airport. Regardless, experts say the airports could be competing for airlines, federal funds and passengers.

While Gary has passenger service with Pan Am, officials are trying to recruit other airlines. Pan Am has cut its flights from Gary to one a day, with service only to Sanford, Fla.

Attracting major carriers has been a challenge, and Jay Franke, assistant director of the Northwestern University Transportation Center and former aviation commissioner for Chicago, said a move to different airports probably won't happen unless the major airlines are convinced there aren't expansion opportunities at O'Hare.

If an airport is built in Peotone, airlines will have to choose between Gary or Peotone because, as Franke said, "There aren't that many airlines in the world."

The choice would then depend on which airport is a better fit, he said.

"Airlines have access to very detailed information on who is flying where at what price," he said.

There is only so much money in the federal pot, and David LaValle of Fleishman Hillard, a St. Louis public relations firm, said that's where community support can be vital.

"Lobbying has changed in the past few years. Legislators are more and more these days responding to the folks back home," he said. "They want to hear from the key decision-makers: mayors, local chamber presidents, school teachers. They want to know how this project impacts the community."

Indiana state and federal lawmakers say they rarely get calls or letters about the airport.

Rick Bryant, spokesman for U.S. Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. (D-2nd) of Chicago, said he gets calls and letters every day about the third airport.

"We also hear from the opponents, but the vast majority are in favor," he said.

Generating support

Though Visclosky feels strongly that business, community and political leaders already show support, he doesn't deny more could help.

"The more people involved, the better," he said.

Visclosky, Lugar, U.S. Rep. Evan Bayh (D-Ind.), Gov. Frank O'Bannon and King are planning a meeting for early April where King said the group will discuss ways to make the "Gary solution" more visible.

"The case has to be made that an existing airport, like ... Gary offers, is a here-and-now solution," he said.

East Chicago Mayor Robert Pastrick agreed a regional approach is the way to go.

"We ought to all form a partnership in Northwest Indiana toward enhancing the efforts of making the Gary airport a true regional airport," he said.

Hammond Mayor Duane Dedelow said that's exactly what needs to happen.

"In order to maximize its potential, we need to get a bunch of leaders, political and otherwise in Northwest Indiana, to develop a plan on how to market it and develop a plan for it to reach its maximum potential, " he said.

[Chicago ATC News]