GARY — The Gary/Chicago International Airport is set to become truly international with the completion of a U.S. Customs and Border Protection facility that will allow flights from anywhere in the world to land in Gary.

The airport held a ceremonial opening Thursday attended by more than 100 officials and business people. The facility will open to business in coming weeks after CBP installs the information technology required to run it.

Airport Executive Director Duane Hayden thanked current and previous airport board members and administrators for their work bringing the facility to Gary.

"It's great to see their vision and hard work come to fruition today," he said.

Airport Authority Chairman Timothy Fesko called the customs facility "an incredible opportunity to continue the growth we've experienced."

Officials including Gary Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson and U.S. Sen. Joe Donnelly, D-Indiana, said the customs facility will build on recent expansion at the airport, beginning with the runway extension completed in 2015.

Freeman-Wilson said private construction projects by tenants like fixed-base operators Gary Jet Center and B. Coleman Aviation is confirmation of the work the airport has done in recent years.  

"To me, that supports our assertion that the airport is in fact growing and taking off," she said. 

Donnelly, who assisted the airport in achieving the movement of freight railroad tracks to make the runway extension possible, noted the "Welcome to the United States" sign in the customs facility's foyer.

"I thought, this really is a customs facility that's going to change everything," he said. "If there's an easy way to get to downtown Chicago, it's Gary, Indiana."

The customs facility can serve general aviation flights. The fixed-base operators said Gary's easy access to Chicago should draw some of those international business and private flights.

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John Girzadas, president of B. Coleman Aviation, said Midway Airport handles about 600 general aviation international flights a year.

"We're hoping to catch a percentage of that," he said. "The option of landing here is huge."

Gary Jet Center President Lynn Eplawy noted that there are 19 airports within 40 nautical miles of downtown Chicago. 

"It's obvious the landscape for aviation business here in the Chicago area is competitive," she said.

While the airport and its tenants promote its advantages, she said, "for the last 17 years, there's been a box we were unable to check," referring to the lack of customs service since 2001.

"But not today," she said. "Today we checked the box — 'international airport' means we have customs." 

The customs facility is in a building just west of the airport terminal that also houses the firefighting and rescue crews and equipment. Gary-based Lee Companies managed the $1.2 million project to renovate the building.

The facility will be managed from the Customs and Border Protection's Chicago field office, led by Area Port Director Matthew Davies.

Davies said the Gary facility will be staffed on an as needed basis by Chicago area officers.

"This is a positive step forward for the airport and the broader community," he said., "and CBP is ready to do our part to simultaneously support border security and economic prosperity."


Assistant Deputy Editor

Andrew covers transportation, real estate, casinos and other topics for The Times business section. A Crown Point native, he joined The Times in 2014, and has more than 15 years experience as a reporter and editor at Region newspapers.