Interim airport director aims to keep expansion on course
By Carole Carlson firstname.lastname@example.org/302-0949 October 25, 2013 5:40PM
Gary/Chicago International Airport interim director B.R. Lane discusses the runway expansion at a meeting earlier this month. | Carole Carlson/Post-Tribune.
Updated: November 27, 2013 6:02AM
GARY — B.R. Lane is getting used to turbulence.
Within a span of two weeks, she left her job as Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson’s chief of staff and landed in choppy skies as interim director of the Gary/Chicago International Airport. It’s a job not even Lane anticipated.
“This came out of left field,” said Lane, 38, who has a law degree from Harvard and an MBA degree, but no aviation experience.
The lack of technical aviation know-how didn’t bother Freeman-Wilson, who surprised some members of the new Airport Authority by backing Lane as a search for a director was ongoing. The board deadlocked 3-3 on its initial vote Sept. 20, but hired Lane by a unanimous vote two weeks later.
Lane’s arrival came at the most critical juncture in the airport’s history as it navigated swirling political, regulatory, and economic waters and courted private investors to buy into a $100 million development deal.
On Friday, an ad-hoc committee that had been evaluating proposals announced it had settled on Aviation Facilities Company Inc. The committee said it expects to make a final recommendation on a deal with that company in November.
In the meantime, Lane and other airport officials still must deal with the toxin-laden and overdue $166 million runway expansion, delayed until late 2014.
Lane said all those factors led Freeman-Wilson to install her at the airport.
“Collectively, we started to feel the pressure of the runway expansion and the P3,” Lane said of the venture which sought a private investor to bankroll airport development and manage it.
“It wasn’t something we’d been plotting and planning,” Lane said of her job shift. “The mayor and I worked very well together at City Hall. I was happy there. It wasn’t something we did whimsically.”
Freeman-Wilson said Lane’s familiarity with airport issues trumped her lack of aviation experience. “We can always get someone who understands aviation, but to move us forward, she’s the best candidate,” Freeman-Wilson said.
Now, Lane must keep track of all the moving pieces. Nothing has come easy.
Lane’s first day on the job on Oct. 1 coincided with the federal government shutdown. “My first question was, ‘Do we have controllers?’” The air traffic controllers were working, she learned.
Lane has to keep the runway plans moving forward through a morass of federal regulations after toxic chemicals derailed its completion, expected in December.
“What’s impressive is her work ethic and ability to focus on and drive results,” said Bill Hanna, executive director of the Northwest Indiana Regional Development Authority that’s provided $50 toward the expansion.
“We don’t have an option, but to be successful with that airport. We understand when people move positions, there’s talk... She’s completely passionate about it, she’s very driven, and very competent,” Hanna said.
The airport suffered a huge setback in July as bulldozers on the 1,900-foot runway extension churned up large amounts of toxins including PCBs, lead, arsenic and oils. Targeted as a Super Fund site since 1987, the chemicals were expected, but not in such large amounts — more than 100,000 cubic yards.
It adds up to more runway complications and more rules for Lane to digest. In addition, three railroads still need to be relocated.
Before returning home, Lane managed regulatory compliance operations for a nationwide gaming machines operator in Las Vegas.
“I have the foundation of compliance and I understand regulators. I understand the balance that has to be created between compliance and industry,” Lane said.
Composed of seven new board members, four named by Freeman-Wilson, the Airport Authority must chart a course for the sputtering airport that lost its only passenger air service in August when Allegiant Air halted flights to Florida. Five previous passenger airlines have stopped service since 1999.
As for the deal to develop and manage the airport, Aviation Facilities, based near Washington, D.C., was one of two groups left in the running. The other was GCIA Group Inc. of Gary.
Neither proposal offered cash up front.
Meanwhile, the bigger picture — the airport’s future — still isn’t known.
“Is it commercial, general aviation, or cargo? We need to figure it out and allocate money accordingly,” Lane said. “The runway size gives us flexibility to determine our identity.” Lane said she and new board members are reviewing past market studies; their decision will be driven by data.
Lane downplayed concerns over a lack of up-front cash from a developer.
“We won’t wake up and have a check for $100 million,” she said. “This isn’t just about the airport, it’s about the region...We’re looking for a long-term partner interested in bringing employment here. Let’s just not focus on the money.”