Gary airport privatization idea not new

2013-04-02T18:00:00Z Gary airport privatization idea not newBy Keith Benman keith.benman@nwi.com, (219) 933-3326 nwitimes.com

A joint city/airport committee readying a recommendation on privatization at Gary/Chicago International Airport is not the first effort to find private investors to spur airport development.

Almost five years ago, then-mayor Rudy Clay said he had been approached by private investment bankers interested in a public-private partnership at the airport and he began talking up the prospect.

The next year, Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels told the conservative American Enterprise Institute that leasing the airport to a private operator represented "a heck of an opportunity." It was Daniels who engineered the $3.8 billion lease of the Indiana Toll Road in 2006.

But not everyone thought the idea could work.

A strategic business plan prepared for the Gary airport and the Northwest Indiana Regional Development Authority three years ago threw cold water on the idea.

"Attracting investors for a facility without commercial traffic, confronted with substantial financial challenges and hampered by a poor public image is at best unlikely," the plan stated.

Legislation was proposed in the 2010 session of the Indiana General Assembly that would have directed any revenue proceeds from privatization to the Northwest Indiana Regional Development Authority. That legislation was vigorously protested by State Sen. Earline Rogers, D-Gary, who wanted any revenue produced to go to the city of Gary.

The bill was then squashed by powerful Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Luke Kenley, R-Noblesville.

But with a $166 million runway expansion slated for completion by the end of this year, city and airport officials feel the time may be ripe to take another look at the idea of privatization at the airport. They also appear ready to take the further step of issuing some type of request for proposals, perhaps within the next few months.

Gary Mayor Karen-Freeman Wilson told members of the joint city/airport committee that she is open to a whole "spectrum" of options for public-private partnerships at the airport, with only an outright sale of the airport ruled out.

Major stakeholders in the Gary airport include Gary taxpayers, the Northwest Indiana Regional Development Authority, and the Federal Aviation Administration. All three groups are pouring tens of millions of dollars into the current expansion project.

Joint committee member Harley Snyder said public stakeholders will only be satisfied when the talk stops and the real action begins.

"Until the public sees planes regularly taking off and landing at this airport, they will never appreciate all that's been done," Snyder said. "The ultimate plan is to have planes taking off and landing at this airport."

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