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Gary/Chicago International Airport will soon kick off the planning process for a U.S. Customs facility by submitting a letter of intent to U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

Airport Manager Delbert Brown told the airport authority board at its regular meeting Thursday the federal agency will then assign a project manager to begin planning the facility in conjunction with the airport.

"We are doing this so we can develop our capabilities as an airport and make it a more attractive place for businesses to operate," Brown told the board.

Aircraft coming from overseas currently have to clear Customs at another U.S. airport before flying on to Gary. Having a Customs facility at Gary would allow flights to come in directly from overseas.

The Customs facility would serve business jets and general aviation planes, Brown said. But it would also put Gary on "the first rung of the ladder" in building up to international passenger operations.

There is no price estimate for the facility and no funding in place yet, Brown said. Exactly where it would be located is part of the planning process, but the airport has identified space adjoining the Fire Department building just west of the terminal as a likely site.

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The last time there was serious talk of building a Customs facility at the airport was in 2008, when Mexican airline VivaAerobus began preliminary planning to fly discount flights between Gary and Monterey. But those plans never materialized, and neither did the Customs facility.

Airport Director Dan Vicari told the board the airport has 450 confirmed guests for Friday's "grand opening" celebration of the runway expansion. Federal Aviation Administration Associate Administrator Eduardo Angeles and Chicago Department of Aviation Commissioner Ginger Evans will be included among the headline speakers.

The celebration, which is for invited guests only, starts at 9 a.m. at the B. Coleman Aviation hangar. It will include the ceremonial landing of a Boeing 737 with a water canon salute in addition to a ribbon cutting. Guests will then be treated to a tour of the expanded runway and a luncheon.

The airport authority also voted 4-0 to renew its public relations contract with Resolute Consulting, of Chicago, at a rate of $7,500 per month.

It also approved a mediated settlement to pay $138,577 to Superior Construction, of Gary, over the company's claim it was owed money on construction of the $11.5 million overpass it completed two years ago on Airport Road.

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