By John F. Infanger, Editorial Director
Recreating a Market
At Gary , IN , officials tie the airport and economic development, with Chicago 's help
GARY , IN — In June, officials here announced their first significant coup in the redevelopment of the Gary/Chicago Airport: The Boeing Company dedicated its new maintenance hangar for its corporate fleet. Since the creation of a joint authority with the City of Chicago 's system of airports, the airport has been seeking to play a larger role in the region's air transportation system while also serving as an economic generator for a city with a history of poverty and abandoned steel mills. The initiative is being helped significantly by funds from the City of Chicago , with which Gary/Chicago Airport ultimately seeks to compete.
The airport sits some 25 miles southeast of downtown Chicago , and is directly accessible by expressway, albeit a frequently congested one. In recent years Gary has been investing heavily in the infrastructure around the Gary/Chicago Airport, most notably highway improvements, driven initially by the introduction of casino boats on the shores of neighboring Lake Michigan . While the casinos have played a role in revitalizing Gary , particularly downtown, the airport continues to be targeted to serve as a primary catalyst for overall economic growth.
The airport currently has no commercial air carrier service, having lost its most recent carrier, the resurgent Pan Am, in June 2002 following two years of service. Pan Am had been flying five flights a week to Orlando 's Sanford International Airport .
Comments airport administrator Paul Karas, "Pan Am would not do any marketing." He adds that the airport is willing to help carriers with their marketing, but that it needs to encompass a consistent, high quality campaign. Also, says Karas, a lack of on-time performance and consistent customer service helped cause the Pan Am effort to fail.
While air service development remains a high priority, says Karas, "We don't have any delusions."
In 1995, the two cities created a compact by which the Chicago/Gary Regional Airport Authority was created. Not an official independent authority, per se, it is more of an agreement by which the two cities agree to work in unison in a coordinated regional approach to air transportation needs.
In reality, admits Karas, a former Chicago public works commissioner, the compact was Mayor Richard Daley's way of squelching a debate with the Illinois Department of Transportation over the future development and control of Chicago 's airports. The hot buttons in that debate were the proposed massive redevelopment of O'Hare International Airport, now underway, the future of Meigs Field, a moot point following the mayor's destruction of its runway, and possible creation of a new commercial airport at Peotone , IL . It was a gambit that in effect worked.
Nonetheless, for the Gary / Chicago Airport , the compact served as the first big step toward revitalizing the facility. It also got the attention of the Federal Aviation Administration, which Karas says has invested some $8 million in funding since 1995. Chicago , meanwhile, has contributed some $10 million to the Gary effort, money taken from passenger facility charges with FAA's approval. The City of Gary has provided some $20 million for the airport, according to Mayor Scott King, and the State of Indiana another $1 million. Accord-ing to airport documents, Gary/Chi-cago operates at break even, recording $362,588 in 2002 revenues.
Karas says that the O'Hare redevelopment should have "no impact" on Gary 's long-term goal of becoming a player in air carrier service to the region. There is a natural market of some 1.5 million, he explains, and that is currently being serviced by Midway Airport . However, he says there is a market segment that is "tiring of the new, big Midway," and his airport is primarily targeting overflow. And, Midway has severe growth limitations.
Regarding Peotone, Karas says that it would cost three-quarters of a billion dollars to create what is already in place at Gary . He comments, "Build upon Gary first, then look at Peotone."
Gary officials have focused since 1995 on rebuilding the airport's infrastructure, and recently completed new roadway access to the terminal. Projects completed in 2002 include runway and airfield lighting rehabilitation; Phase II of an environmental impact statement; and an additional 75,000 square feet of concrete apron. A deal is underway to relocate the Army National Guard to a new $24.5 million, 26,000-sq.ft. facility to house five Blackhawk helicopters and a training center. API Flight School relocated to Gary/Chi-cago last year, and general aviation is already serviced by the Gary Jet Center , a full-service fixed base operation under a 40-year lease.