Airport authority nudges $7 million hangar project forward

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Jun. 11--A project to build a $7 million international aviation hub at the Gary/Chicago International Airport took one step forward on Thursday but did not yet win airport authority approval.

The authority board went ahead with a public hearing on the project, but it held off on taking any vote on ordinances needed before the Gary Jet Center can begin work on the project.

"It's unanimous among the board this is a good project," said Airport Authority President Nathaniel Williams at the authority's regular monthly meeting. "We want to get it done."

However, when questioned about negotiations on finalizing the deal after the meeting, Williams said that remains a work in progress.

"The proposal is being tweaked as we go forward," he said.

Gary Jet Center partner Patrick Lee expressed relief the board went ahead with the public hearing on Thursday, after the same hearing was abruptly canceled one month ago.

The Gary Jet Center has now offered to increase the rent paid directly to the airport for the facility to as much as $4,000 per month, as compared to $1,638 per month in its original offer, Lee said. The airport authority appears to be backing off its demand that the Gary Jet Center pay part of the cost of demolishing a 60-year-old hangar on the site, he said.

"I think we are very close to terms and we appreciate the opening of the public hearing, because we do have to do this, this year," Lee said to the authority board.

The Gary Jet Center is the airport's fixed-base operator. That means it is the one-stop shop for plane refueling, maintenance and repair at the airport.

The Gary Jet Center needs to complete building the flight facility by the end of this year to take advantage of a federal stimulus program that will lower its borrowing costs.

The project includes a 40,000-square-foot hangar and 6,000-square-foot office and customs facility. The customs facility would be the first open to the general aviation public at the airport, allowing it to accept international flights.

Lee outlined all the benefits of the project for the airport. Although the airport must authorize the bonding for the project, the Gary Jet Center will pay the entire cost of building it.

Lee pointed out that the Gary Jet Center's building of a new 40,000-square-foot hangar just two years ago helped the airport weather the downturn in aviation during the last two years.

Fees paid to the airport on every gallon of jet fuel the Gary Jet Center pumps actually increased 12.2 percent in 2009, when most airports were seeing steep declines in fuel purchases. The airport would earn a projected $43,200 per year in increased fuel flowage fees if the new facility is opened for business.

"The Gary Jet Center has enjoyed the success of the airport and the airport has enjoyed the success of the Gary Jet Center," Lee said.

Airlines and Gary airport talking

Two airlines have requested information on marketing and incentives from the Gary/Chicago International Airport and a third is interested in exploring a Gary-to-Pittsburgh route.

Airport Director Chris Curry attended an airline recruiting conference in San Diego earlier this week, and Frontier Airlines, Gulf Stream International, and Vision Airlines, a charter service, all wanted to know more about the airport.

Frontier is interested in a Gary-to-Denver route; Gulfstream International Airlines a direct Pittsburgh route; and Vision Airlines a St. Petersburg, Fla., route, Curry said.

Curry said interest in Gary appears to be on the upswing, because fierce airline competition in Milwaukee is driving more airlines to look at alternative ways to access the Chicago market.

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