GARY | Chicago Aviation Commissioner Ginger Evans delivered a powerful endorsement Friday of Gary/Chicago International Airport as the future of a potential rival airport at nearby Peotone, Ill., hangs in the balance.
Evans spoke Friday before 400 people at the grand opening of the Gary airport's expanded main runway.
"This is an incredible accomplishment that will have a long-lasting, positive impact on this region and, on behalf of Mayor (Rahm) Emanuel, I wish you the best," she said from a stage set up outside the B. Coleman Aviation hangar.
With Evans on the stage were U.S. Sen. Joe Donnelly, Gary Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson, Federal Aviation Administration head of airports Eduardo Angeles, and other local officials who contributed to the expansion effort.
The future of the state of Illinois' effort to build a south suburban airport at Peotone has been in doubt ever since Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner took office in January. His recent budget actions have heightened that doubt.
That proposed airport has long been seen not only as a rival to Gary, but as a rival to O'Hare International and Midway airports as well.
Evans, recently appointed in Chicago to head the city's Department of Aviation, said Gary has the capability to relieve O'Hare International and Midway of general aviation and certain cargo operations.
Evans said Chicago's aviation department wants to see a return on its multimillion-dollar investment in Gary in comments after the speeches were done.
"It's a significant investment, and we will not walk away from this investment," she said.
As for the planned south suburban airport, she said she had not been able to fully study the issue yet, but she doesn't want to see efforts that might be duplicative.
"We've made a commitment here and we intend to leverage the investment we've already made in this airport, and we don't see the need to duplicate that in the future," Evans said.
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The Gary/Chicago International Airport runway was expanded to 8,900 feet from 7,000 feet, allowing it to handle larger, heavier planes. The runway now also has 1,000-foot safety areas at either end as mandated by the FAA.
Some 28 local contractors and nearly every crafts union did work at one time or another on the massive project.
"From a labor perspective, we are very happy to get this done," said Dan Murchek, president of the Northwest Indiana Federation of Labor. "This opens the door and the potential for some good-paying jobs down the road."
The largest financial contributors to the project were the FAA with an investment of almost $60 million and the Northwest Indiana Regional Development Authority at $50 million.
Freeman-Wilson asked all contributors to the project to stand up -- including public officials, contractors, airport tenants, city of Gary employees and others when her turn came during the swift succession of speakers.
"Everyone wanted to get this done because they realized how important this is to the citizens of Gary and the citizens of Northwest Indiana," Freeman-Wilson said.
The expanded runway opened for business at 6 a.m. on June 25. That day marked the welcome end of a nine-year saga of delays and cost overruns.
The project was started in 2006 but only proceeded by fits and starts until about two years ago. It had an estimated cost of $90 million in 2006 that swelled to an actual cost of $174 million by the project's end.
Gary and region officials hope the opening of the expanded runway marks the beginning of a new era for Gary, as they craft other economic development projects such as a nearby Buffington Harbor industrial park.
The airport is now operated by a private company, AvPorts, and Virginia-based Aviation Facilities Co. Inc., known as AFCO, has a 40-year contract to develop the airport. The Gary Airport Authority remains its owner.