No break in the clouds over controversial air show

2014-06-25T17:49:00Z 2014-06-26T23:40:08Z No break in the clouds over controversial air showBill Dolan bill.dolan@nwi.com, (219) 662-5328 nwitimes.com
June 25, 2014 5:49 pm  • 

FAIR OAKS | At least 10 inches of rain in the past 30 days grounded what was to be the 2014 South Shore Air Show at its new venue here, tourism officials said.

Speros Batistatos, president of the South Shore Convention and Visitors Authority, said Wednesday he expects critics of shifting the show out of Lake County to have a field day, but more than 60 acres of waterlogged viewing and parking areas require cancellation.

It was to be a three-day show starting July 11 featuring the U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds, the U.S. Army Golden Knights parachute team and other acrobatic air events. The South Shore Regional Car Show will go on as scheduled July 10 at Fair Oaks Farms in Jasper County.

Although Wednesday's announcement was made here under sunny skies, Gary Corbett, CEO of Fair Oaks Farms, said the forecast for the next 16 days wasn't promising.

Batistatos said the decision had to be made now to avoid heavy marketing expenses promoting a doubtful event that would leave cars "axle-deep in mud" and visitors muddy. He said he doesn't know how much money the convention authority had spent on the show to date.

Corbett said there was higher, drier ground for parking a mile away, but not enough shuttle buses nor sidewalks for the more than 50,000 expected visitors to walk to viewing areas. Corbett and Batistatos said they didn't want to start the retooled air show with a bad experience for the public.

The cancellation was a disappointment for Batistatos and the tourism board, which were lightning rods for political carping over their decision to take the show on the road after more than a decade's presence over Gary's Miller Beach.

The decision was roundly criticized by Hammond Mayor Thomas McDermott Jr. and Lake County government officials who were upset to see revenues and hotel-motel taxes generated in Lake spent to promote a tourism event in another county.

Batistatos said at the time there was little choice because Gary could no longer afford police, ambulance and park support. Federal air space restrictions prevented the event from being held on the Whiting and North Hammond lakes shore, Batistatos previously said.

Batistatos said it would be impossible to move a complex show back to Gary by July 11. "We can't even move it across the street," he said

McDermott recently muted his opposition after Hammond asked the tourism board to increase its contribution to Hammond’s Festival of the Lakes.

Nevertheless, Batistatos said he was prepared for second-guessing by critics.

"Let the armchair quarterbacking begin. I look forward to your nonpolitical observations. I know we are doing the right thing," he said.

The two men said they look forward to holding the show here in future years.

They said refunds would be available for people who purchased parking passes. They said they will work with families who booked hotels about getting refunds, too.

Gary Jet Center owner Wil Davis, who founded the Gary Air Show in 2000 with the support of then-Mayor Scott King, called the cancellation of the 2014 South Shore Air Show "extremely disappointing."

"This is just the worst of the worst," Davis said. "When you cancel you lose a lot of credibility with all these organizations. So getting them back will be tough. That's the big issue going forward."

That's particularly true of the U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds, Davis said. The famous act was set to stage its nine fighter jets and a support crew of more than 50 at Gary/Chicago International Airport for this year's show.

"The Thunderbirds, they are the top of the top," Davis said. "It's not like we are just canceling some civilian act."

At Monday's meeting of the Gary Airport Authority, it was announced the Gary Jet Center would be the single point of contact for all matters pertaining to the Thunderbirds.

The Miller Beach venue is still available for the show, Davis said. But someone would have to pay for it.

"At this point no one's going to any air show, whether it's at Fair Oaks or Miller Beach," Davis said.

Times staff writer Keith Benman contributed to this report.

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