Kadner: Will County blew chance to run airport
When the South Suburban Airport is finally built, there’s not going to be any local control.
It’s safe to say that Will County and its suburbs would have been better off had they teamed with former U.S. Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. to build an airport.
After more than 150 Southland leaders met with Illinois transportation officials Wednesday to hear details about the state’s plan to form a public-private partnership to construct the airport, it seems clear that the notion of “local control” of the project is dead.
The state is in charge of this airport now.
Eventually, a private developer selected by the state will have a huge say in how the airport is built and operated because it will be investing a lot of cash.
There is no official role for Will County, where the airport will be located, or for the suburbs surrounding the airport site. They will not be owners or partners in the airport and so will receive no money if the airport turns a profit.
To paraphrase a line from a Tennessee Williams play, the local units of government are going to be dependent on the kindness of strangers.
Jackson developed the private-partnership airport model that the state has purloined. He created the Abraham Lincoln National Airport Commission (ALNAC), composed entirely of suburbs, to govern the airport when it was built.
But that commission included suburbs in Cook County, raising the ire of Will County towns that surround the airport site.
And it was the brainchild of Jackson, whose congressional district at the time didn’t even include the proposed airport location.
Will County officials obviously saw Jackson as a carpetbagger from Chicago, and his father’s reputation as a civil rights leader and publicity seeker also raised suspicions. But five seats on ALNAC were reserved for Will County suburbs, specifically for the towns of Crete, Beecher, Monee and Peotone.
All of those communities spurned the proposed commission, contending that the airport should be governed entirely by Will County representatives. And Will County government wanted control as well, and its officials ridiculed Jackson for giving Elk Grove Village a seat on ALNAC.
The northwest suburb was a founding member of ALNAC, providing much of its initial financing. Its primary interest was creating a third airport as a poke in the eye to Chicago, which was trying to expand O’Hare International Airport’s footprint in Elk Grove Village and neighboring suburbs.
Jackson also saw Elk Grove Village as an anti-Chicago defense system to protect his third airport development. With good cause, he believed Chicago’s political leaders would do everything in their power to undermine a Southland airport to avoid competition with Midway and O’Hare airports, both patronage havens controlled by the city.
Elk Grove Village was to give up its seat on ALNAC after the “first shovel of dirt was turned” on the airport — to be replaced by a representative from Kankakee, thus putting Cook County government entities at a 6 to 3 disadvantage on the commission.
But Elk Grove Village was given “veto” power on ALNAC, and those who did not know how determined Chicago had been to stop the airport thought Jackson’s ravings on the subject sounded paranoid.
While many Will County leaders refused for years to actively support the airport, they all agreed that if and when the airport was built, they wanted local control. That meant a governing authority that included the surrounding suburbs and Will County.
The Federal Aviation Administration, nudged by the Daleys of Chicago, ruled that no third airport would be built until a “regional consensus” was reached on it.
Gov. Pat Quinn finally put an end to the regional political warfare in May by pushing a bill through the Legislature giving the Illinois Department of Transportation control of the airport project. It will have the sole authority to form a public-private partnership to construct and operate the airport.
IDOT will consult with and communicate with local communities. But that’s all that’s required under the law.
And that’s what the meeting at Governors State University was all about this week.
Mayors from the towns closest to the airport site still hope that they will be given a development authority to control zoning and construction outside the airport’s fences.
There’s talk of trying to pass legislation incorporating such language in the fall veto session of the Legislature.
And U.S. Rep. Robin Kelly (D-2nd), who replaced Jackson after he resigned and later admitted to illegally spending campaign funds for personal reasons, is trying to unify suburbs in Cook and Will counties to give them a voice in the process.
But after talking to several Southland mayors following the meeting with IDOT, they seemed to understand there will be no local control over the airport itself.
In my view, the state is probably better off with IDOT in control.
I’m not sure a local airport authority would have had the tools or political clout to make the airport happen.
There certainly would have been lawsuits brought, challenging ALNAC had it been handed control of the airport.
And then there was Jackson himself, the airport’s biggest booster, who ultimately became its greatest obstacle.
Ironically, all the words spoken by local officials today are conciliatory.
They just want some input. Some chance to control the construction of warehouses, hotels, restaurants and such outside the airport’s gates.
No one talks about local control anymore.
Jackson was willing to give it to them. Wanted to give it to them.
Quinn will not.
But no one in Will County is ever going to say they would have been better off accepting Jackson’s deal.