Gary Airport, Reconsidered

Gary/Chicago International Airport, backed by federal and state funding, as well as renewed community support, prepares for growth.

GARY, IN — Only 25 miles from downtown Chicago, Gary/Chicago International Airport (renamed to reflect its location) here hopes to establish itself as the region’s third major airport, along with O’Hare and Midway. And while the airport has faced some struggles attracting and retaining air service, officials here are positive that the latest displays of confidence in the airport — in the form of funding — will put Gary in a position to help meet the demands of northwest Indiana and the Chicagoland area. Public support of the airport, including the mayors of Chicago and Gary, the governor of Indiana, as well as a non-profit organization (Friends of Gary/Chicago Airport), and the creation of a Regional Development Authority, will be one of the main drivers of the future success of the airport, according to director Paul Karas.

Marketing director Denise Williams says a new focus on the airport “in terms of seeing it as a viable economic development arm — not just for this city, not just for this county, but for the entire state” is responsible for much of the positive news that has come out of Gary lately. And the incremental growth plan the airport has implemented over the years has helped poise Gary/Chicago International for continued growth.

Regional Collaboration, Support

The Gary/Chicago International Airport Authority which governs the operations, policies, and use of funds at the airport is made up of a six-member board. A second board, the Gary/Chicago Regional Airport Authority, is a 12-member board that the governors of Indiana and Illinois and the mayors of Gary and Chicago make appointments to. This board is responsible for managing the compact that the airport entered into with the City of Chicago and the Chicago Department of Aviation in 1995. Under this collaboration, between $1.5 million and $2 million is annually put into a fund to support “the growth and development of infrastructure at Gary/Chicago International Airport,” explains Williams. “That fund approaches about $15 million over the course of the agreement.”

A recently established Regional Development Authority is comprised of three Northwest Indiana counties — Lake, Port, and LaPorte — and was developed to address transportation issues in the region. Neighboring cities which have casinos, including Gary, East Chicago, and Hammond, had to put $5 million into a pool. Lake and Porter counties also contributed $5 million and the State of Indiana then matched those funds.

According to Karas, $20 million from the RDA will be available to Gary beginning in July. The current agreement has the RDA funded for a period of ten years at some $120 million.

Karas considers the airport’s growth and development a four-legged stool with general aviation, corporate aviation, cargo, and passenger service. “They’re not mutually exclusive and they’re fully complimentary here.”

$85 Million Initiative

The airport’s most recent feather in its cap is a letter of intent (LOI) from FAA for $57.8 million (equals $6 million per year for nine-plus years). Karas says the amount is particularly significant because the airport received 96 percent of the amount it requested. The $57.8 million represents 68 percent of the total program cost of $85 million (not including inflation or capitalized interest), which includes relocation of railroad tracks currently located at the end of the airport’s 7,000-foot runway.

In addition to the LOI, funding for the project comes from the following sources: $2.8 million, 2005 AIP; $7 million from the Federal Highway Act; $20 million, Regional Development Authority (RDA). Additionally, the Gary/Chicago Airport received $2 million from the transit administration for relocation of the railroad.

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