HAMMOND | Mayor Thomas McDermott engaged South Shore Convention and Visitors Authority President Speros Batistatos Friday in a verbal dogfight over moving the air show out of Lake County.
"It's a travesty," the Hammond mayor complained on his WJOB talk show Friday, his Facebook page and to The Times about the South Shore Air Show taking place next summer at Fair Oaks Farms, which straddles Newton and Jasper counties, 46 miles south of Hammond, after more than a decade's residence in Gary.
Batistatos said federal air space restrictions involving Chicago Midway International Airport and the practical limitations of hosting an event that draws a quarter-million people left the South Shore CVA with little choice.
McDermott said it's inappropriate to use Lake County taxes to promote private business outside the county. South Shore CVA receives millions annually in Lake County casino and hotel-motel taxes and has spent as much as $460,000 annually in public money to put on the event.
While Gary Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson said her city no longer can afford to provide police, ambulance and park support services for the event, McDermott said he and Whiting Mayor Joseph Stahura offered their lakefronts to Batistatos last summer as the next venue.
"There was great enthusiasm on their and our part about this," Batistatos said. "Whiting and North Hammond do a spectacular job on Festival of the Lakes and Pirogi Fest. Unfortunately, the air show's performance box is in the middle of the approach to Runway 21 at Midway.
"I made the appropriate inquiries about how the Chicago Air Show gets around it, but the (Federal Aviation Administration) doesn't negotiate flight paths and arrivals at a major airport. I was told we couldn't get around it.
"We could have done a cute little show with propeller bi-planes here that no one will come to. Military jets are what sell air shows," he said, adding that federal restrictions also forbid low-flying jets over heavily populated residential areas across much of Lake County.
He said efforts to shift it to Michigan City also proved unsuccessful.
"This is the only place to do this show," Batistatos said of Fair Oaks Farms. "They are a national tourism attraction and a much more family-friendly destination."
McDermott countered the change of flight path.
"Speros is always saying he is good at putting heads in beds, but how is this event doing that for Lake County?"
Speros said the deal will put heads in beds from central Lake County on south.
"We are putting together hotel packages from U.S. 30 to Jasper County," he said.
"We are going to have the most prominent airshow in Indiana. We will be dragging people from Indianapolis, Lafayette. We will be putting weekend packages together that include the dunes and the Radisson and other north county attractions," he said.
McDermott said Batistatos is pushing a personal agenda.
"He wants to be a tourism director over a large section of Northwest Indiana," McDermott said.
Batistatos said he understands McDermott's job is to promote his city, but Batistatos, who is negotiating with Jasper County to be its convention and visitor's bureau, adds, "I'm unlike a mayor or any elected official. I don't see political lines, because our customers don't."
He said the job of the agency is to "earn market share every day."
"If we don't go out and create attractions and reasons for people to visit, they don't happen. ... I don't see it as Newton County, because our visitors see this as the same way as driving to the Lighthouse Mall in Michigan City for outlet shopping or the dunes or beach or Albanese (candy). This is part of a regional experience," Batistatos said.