Gary airport could be economic engine for region

2011-05-25T20:00:00Z Gary airport could be economic engine for regionBy Keith Benman keith.benman@nwi.com, (219) 933-3326 nwitimes.com

Over the years numerous studies have sought to quantify the benefits that would come with expansion of Gary/Chicago International Airport, with estimates varying widely as the U.S. air industry underwent transformative changes.

The most recent plan for the airport was commissioned by the airport and the Northwest Indiana Regional Development Authority, which is the second largest funder of the upcoming runway expansion after the Federal Aviation Administration.

That business plan, prepared by international consultant Landrum & Brown at a cost of $449,732, found the airport could be flying up to 100,000 charter passengers once expansion takes place and up to 539,000 passengers once regional airlines can be enticed to fly out of Gary.

The Gary airport would have to fly about 300,000 passengers per year to get into the league of larger regional airports like Fort Wayne International and South Bend Regional, according to the Federal Aviation Administration statistics. By comparison, Indianapolis International flies about 3.7 million passengers per year and Midway about 8 million.

The business plan also spotlighted general aviation and business jet travel as airport sweet spots and envisioned some potential for cargo shipments. There were 33,613 landings and takeoffs at the airport in 2010, most of it in those three categories, according to airport statistics.

The Landrum & Brown study did not take a stab at pinpointing what increased airport activity might mean for the local economy.

Earlier studies such as the Comprehensive Economic Development Plan prepared in 2007 for the RDA based its forecasts on much higher passenger numbers. The report claims those numbers could be realized with a full build-out of the airport including a second cross-wind runway for passenger airlines, a new terminal and a 2,700-space parking garage.

Capturing just 7 percent of the Chicago region market, the airport could be flying more than 3 million passengers by 2026, according to the RDA's Comprehensive Economic Development Plan. That would put it on a par with airports like Indianapolis International.

The report found that for every dollar spent on airport improvements the region would realize a return of $226 in economic output. Through 2040 the increased economic activity generated by the airport would create 86,000 jobs and add $44.5 billion to the region's economic output, according to the report.

Airport promoters appear to have scaled back their ambitions for the airport considerably since the 2007 report, recognizing both fiscal constraints and the reality that Gary will never compete directly with airports like Midway and O'Hare.

They also point out all the talk of future potential obscures the significant economic activity generated by the airport now.

A 2007 study by the Aviation Association of Indiana found the airport then had an overall economic impact of $153 million on the region.

More than 160 people work at the airport today, with the bulk of them working for private employers such as Boeing Corp., which houses its corporate jet fleet there, and the Gary Jet Center, the airport's fixed-base operator for fueling and maintenance of planes.

In 2009, the Indiana Air National Guard completed the second of two facilities at the airport. One is a $11.5 million armory/training facility and the other a $16.5 million flight readiness center housing three Blackhawk and two Kiowa helicopters.

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