In late 2012, the Gary/Chicago International Airport runway expansion was in disarray: contractors were not getting paid, railroad negotiations had ground to a halt, and the airport was struggling to come up with $50 million more to meet the exploding cost of the project.
After six years of stop-and-go work, all airport officials had to show for their effort were a couple hundred acres of graded dirt and a relocated NIPSCO substation. In addition, the cost had ballooned to $166 million from original estimates of about $90 million.
"With this shortfall we have, we are trying to get some cash," said then-airport authority President Nathaniel Williams.
Despite the beleaguered position of the project just two-and-a-half years ago, this week, corporate jet aircraft and others began landing and taking off on an expanded 8,900-foot main runway.
In addition, the runway now has federally mandated 1,000-foot safety areas at either end, heading off a threat by federal regulators to curtail some of the airport's most important activities. And a major rail line now loops far around the airport's northwest end, rather than on a 38-foot-high embankment smack up against the end of the main runway.
Observers and airport users are saying the longer runway opens up new possibilities for the airport, including a shot at attracting regularly scheduled air service.
"It's all positive," said Gary Jet Center owner Wil Davis of the project's completion.
"There are no negatives here. ... It took longer than it should have. It cost more than it should have. But it's done."
Bo Kemp, a top adviser to Gary Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson, has long said the airport is a key project when it comes to getting people to "suspend their disbelief" that things can get done in Gary. Kemp, once a key aide to former Newark Mayor Cory Booker, said such projects also have a symbolic value, showing outsiders the momentum Gary has instituted.
Joseph Schwieterman, a DePaul University professor and director of the Chaddick Institute for Metropolitan Development, made much the same observation when told of the project's impending completion last week.
"The airport brings prestige to Gary that could ripple through its entire economy," he said.
Outside of state highway construction on the Borman Expressway, the $174 million Gary airport expansion will be the single largest piece of public infrastructure completed in decades in the region.
Seeking out the truth
How the transformative project at an airfield that likes to bill itself as "Chicago's third airport" went from near disaster to crowning achievement goes back to the 2011 election that propelled Freeman-Wilson into office, according to a number of people, including former critics.
But it didn't happen right away.
Freeman-Wilson seemed to fumble through her first year-and-a-half trying to get on top of the project, first packaging reform there with attempts to get a land-based casino, trauma center, teaching hospital and intermodal lakefront port. She later found herself fending of a state move to take away her majority control of appointments to the airport authority board.
But like Booker in Newark, Freeman-Wilson came to office with an open mind and was willing to listen, Kemp said. In addition, both have another quality that has allowed them to succeed.
"Both have a likeability and charisma that allows them to work across the aisle," he said.
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Freeman-Wilson said getting a handle on such an extensive and complex project would be difficult for anyone. But she said it was made harder by the fact she simply was not being told the truth. That was particularly true of the so-called "final" agreement struck with railroads in April 2011 for moving all tracks blocking expansion.
A week ago, the mayor said no one was ever able to actually show her that agreement. And the tracks remained in place, and freight trains continued to trundle across the end of the main runway needed for expansion.
In early 2013, the mayor was handed a significant victory when State Sen. Earline Rogers, D-Gary, persuaded legislators to back off their move to strip away Gary mayor's majority control of the board. Instead, they left board-appointing authority as it was, but required new people be appointed to all seven seats.
At end of August, Freeman-Wilson appointed her four members to the seven-member board, with the three other appointing authorities quickly following. With that action, she was able to finally put her stamp on top management at the airport.
At the end of September, she engineered a move to have her own chief of staff, B.R. Lane, appointed as interim airport director, a post that had gone vacant when the former director resigned.
That move, questionable at the time because of Lane's lack of aviation experience, is now credited for igniting a turnaround in the project.
"Mayor Karen got the right people in place and got the ball rolling," said Gary Jet Center Owner Wil Davis recently. "And B.R. Lane started it, as far as staying focused on the deal."
Lane, who had formerly worked as a compliance executive for a gaming company in Las Vegas, began demanding accountability from the raft of high-priced consultants involved in the expansion project, including engineering firm and program manager, AECOM.
She also began delivering detailed, realistic monthly reports to the board. That had board members in turn demanding the same kind of accountability of Lane. The mayor also had a hand in the hiring of a new lawyer to negotiate with railroads.
Help in high places
But getting the railroads to finally move their tracks took the direct intervention of U.S. Sen. Joe Donnelly, who convened two meetings with railroads, one at the airport and one at his Washington, D.C., offices.
Last week, the mayor said Donnelly, a Democrat, told the railroads: "This is important to the city of Gary. This is important to me. Mayor, tell them what has to be done."
Those negotiations, stalled for years, had become the largest impediment to completing the runway expansion. Successful negotiations were essential, because they would allow the airport to finally take down the 38-foot high embankment that carried Canadian National trains into Kirk Yard to the north.
But even once the airport spent $28.7 million to build new tracks for Canadian National near Cline Avenue, a project essentially complete in June 2013, the berm still stood and the tracks were not moved.
But on Oct. 24, 2014, after more lengthy negotiations, the breakthrough finally came. The airport authority by a 4-0 vote on that day approved a land swap with Canadian National that put the berm into its hands.
"The berm is coming down," said Airport Authority Vice President James Cooper.