The Lake Calumet Airport is still "dead, dead, dead," but it enjoyed a brief, meteoric rise and fall during the long, continuing battle over construction of a third Chicago area airport.
As environmental activists and South Side residents gather today to commemorate the proposed airport's demise 20 years ago and promote the plan for an environmental park in its place, some wonder if former Mayor Richard Daley was ever really serious about building the airport.
"The idea was originally part of Daley's way to slow down the Peotone airport because he saw momentum building toward that with (former Illinois Gov. Jim) Edgar -- and from that perspective -- he was successful," said Ed Paesel, South Suburban Mayors and Managers Association executive director.
"But I don't want to diminish what the people of that area did," Paesel added. "They came out in the hundreds and thousands in public meetings. That was very important."
Discussion and a full study of construction of a third Chicago airport at one of three suburban Illinois sites and the Gary Municipal Airport had been underway for several years and a bistate commission was close to taking a final vote on the preferred site when Daley tossed Lake Calumet into the pot and insisted it be considered with the others.
He presented a study showing it would cost $5 billion but would require relocating thousands of people and wiping out entire communities in addition to destroying huge natural areas. Daley's ace-in-the-hole was that he had the only funding source to build an airport: O'Hare International Airport.
The site was added to the study, the selection committee was expanded to include Chicago representatives and a final decision was delayed for several months. Before the committee's final vote, Daley presented a revised airport plan to reduce the impact somewhat and preserve some of the wetlands while increasing the cost, which eventually was estimated to top $20 billion.
Despite the cost and many other questions about the feasibility of the site, especially the impact on area residents and the environment and the assessment it could mean closing Midway Airport, the committee picked Lake Calumet with Indiana's representatives joining with Chicago to defeat the suburban sites.
The project passed the Illinois House on the third try but was rejected by the Senate. When that happened, Daley declared the project "Dead, dead, dead."
"I think he did believe in the site," said Curt Wiley, a former Indiana Transportation commissioner. "I don't think we knew the degree of difficulty of building it when the decision was made. We didn't see the majority of the committee agreeing on Gary, and we felt our best interests for economic development in Indiana was Lake Calumet. It was the best we could get. It was fascinating to go through."
One consultant for the study, who asked not to be quoted, said he didn't believe Daley ever was serious about the project. The consultant said the Chicago area never achieved sufficient airport capacity, and the predictions of 20 years ago of small towns losing air service, prices going up and air travel becoming inconvenient and unreliable from overbooking have come true.
Paesel said he still believes an airport will be built in the Peotone area citing the fact the state recently approved $71 million to buy about 3,000 acres for it.
"All the reports the FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) wanted have been submitted, and they should be approved in the next year," Paesel said. "The state legislature approved a public/private partnership to develop it. Once the Illiana Expressway request for proposals gets going, the Illinois Department of Transportation will do the same with the airport."