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Gary mayor likes airport flight plan

Gary Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson.  |  Sun-Times Media

Gary Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson. | Sun-Times Media

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Updated: December 15, 2013 7:10PM

GARY — Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson has voiced strong support for the tentative management agreement for the under-utilized Gary/Chicago International Airport.

“I think the potential management agreement with the airport is a win for citizens both on and off airport property and it bodes well for future development of the airport,” Freeman-Wilson said of the pact with a group of investors presented to the Airport Authority Dec. 9.

The authority is expected to vote on it before the end of December.

Freeman-Wilson and supporters think the new public/private relationship will rejuvenate the sagging airport’s fortunes after it lost its lone commercial passenger carrier, Allegiant Air, in August.

Aviation Facilities Co. Inc./AvPORTS, of Dulles, Va., leads the investors group, which also includes Guggenheim Securities, and Loop Capital, both based in Chicago.

The companies will invest $100 million over a period of 40 years, according to the agreement. There will be an initial outlay of $25 million over the next three years that airport supporters hope will jump-start economic development and create new jobs around the airport, cementing its reputation as Chicago’s third major airport behind O’Hare International and Midway.

Another potential competitor to the Gary airport, however, is the long-discussed airport proposed for Peotone, Ill., in the far south Chicago suburbs. A new tollway, the 47-mile Illiana Expressway, would connect I-55 in Illinois to I-65 in Indiana — and go near Peotone.

But on Thursday, when the Northwestern Indiana Regional Planning Commission voted to support the Illiana, Freeman-Wilson delivered prepared remarks supporting the road, and downplayed concerns about the Peotone airport.

“On their best day, they will never have the Gary airport’s greatest feature, our location less than 30 miles from Chicago,” she said. Earlier, she said: “You can’t compete with something that doesn’t exist.”

Freeman-Wilson liked the Gary airport tentative agreement so much, she recommended the Indiana Department of Transportation consider it as a template for employment/contractor guidelines as it begins to forge a private deal to build Illiana.

The airport developers pledged to provide $300,000 over three years to attract new jobs and there’s a minimum 20 percent participation for minority-and-women-owned businesses. There’s a target of at least a 30 percent local share in contracts and sub-contracts, according to agreement.

For now, interim airport director B.R. Lane, for mayor’s former chief of staff, is staying put.

“That’s up to the airport board,” Freeman-Wilson said. “We’re still in the expansion process and you want someone who’s accountable to the public.”

Work is continuing on the airport’s $166 million, 1,900-foot runway expansion from its current 7,000 feet. Lane is working with railroad attorneys over right-of-way issues to shift tracks to make way for the runway. The runway is on target for completion next year.

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