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Kadner: Illinois’ $35 million airport blunder

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Updated: November 26, 2013 6:28AM



Illinois may end up paying $35 million more for property for the South Suburban Airport because it allowed a businessman to construct a private airfield on the land.

Sitting in the 4,200-acre footprint of the state’s proposed major airport is a general aviation field constructed by Jim Bult in 2007.

Bult, 52, who launched what would become one of the largest interstate solid-waste haulers in the country at age 18 with one truck, apparently just got tired of the state’s stalling on the airport project and went to work.

The result is Bult Field, on the site of the former Sanger Field, 28261 Kedzie Ave., in Will Township. Sanger began as an old country airport in 1948 and included a grass landing strip for crop dusters and a barn that served as a hangar.

Bult, who grew up nearby and became an amateur aviator, wanted a place to land his helicopter and store his private plane.

So he constructed a 5,000-foot-long concrete runway that could accommodate corporate jets, about half the size of the runway the state plans to build. There’s also an airplane hangar large enough to house more than 100 small planes.

And there’s a stone-and-timber lodge, where visiting pilots can stay overnight, complete with conference rooms for out-of-town businessmen. Some people told me they believe Bult now lives in a residence attached to the lodge.

Less than 10 years ago, the Bult Field property was on the market for $1.5 million. Although the state’s plans at the time clearly required the site for the South Suburban Airport, it never made a bid for the land.

A SouthtownStar story a few years ago reported that Bult estimated his investment at $37 million and would likely be seeking at least that if the state came knocking.

A spokesman for the Illinois Department of Transportation said “Bult Field is located within the inaugural footprint (of the airport) and it is IDOT’s intention to incorporate Bult Field into the Inaugural Airport Program. Due to the sensitive and personal nature of land acquisition, IDOT does not publicly discuss the details of any appraisals or negotiations ...”

I telephoned Bult, seeking an interview for this column, but as soon as I identified myself he hung up the phone. I called back and left a voice mail message, tactfully saying that we had been disconnected.

Bult than texted the following message back — “I do not do interviews. Do not call me for one.”

Several sources I spoke to about Bult described him as a gruff, self-made man who enjoys a reputation as a guy willing to thumb his nose at government bureaucrats.

Back when Bult was willing to talk to the newspapers, former SouthtownStar reporter Guy Tridgell quoted him as saying he was not opposed to the state’s plans to build an airport near Bult Field.

“If the state bought Bult Field, bulldozed it and built a viable runway and hangar for me, I wouldn’t care,” Bult told Tridgell. “My beginning goal and my end goal was to have a quality airport here.”

Tridgell, who went on to become the public information officer for IDOT and now is a spokesman for U.S. Rep. Dan Lipinski (D-3rd), said he was under the impression that Bult installed the airfield because he got tired of waiting for the state to build its airport.

Another source who knows Bult related a similar story and said, “I always got the feeling that he thought the government officials were so incompetent they would never get around to actually building an airport, so he was going to do it himself.”

In 1980, Bult founded Mr. Bults Inc., in Burnham, with one truck and himself as the driver, according to the company’s website.

Today, it has a fleet of 1,300 trucks, 2,500 trailers; 100 pieces of loading equipment (including wheel loaders, excavators, skid steers and backhoes) and 90 Columbia trailer tippers along with numerous service trucks, sweepers, cranes and other support equipment.

Bult sold a controlling interest in his company to an investment group several years ago for millions of dollars but continues to run Mr. Bults.

A blog site I stumbled across describes how Bult constructed and drove a “Trophy Truck” a few years ago in a Baja 1000 off-road race.

In short, this is a rich, very independent, smart fellow who isn’t likely to give the state his airport at a lowball price and has the financial ability to challenge a takeover of his property in court.

As I understand it, the state’s plan is to connect Bult Field to the South Suburban Airport cargo runway with some sort of taxiway, thereby keeping the small airport running as IDOT launches a cargo airport that may eventually attract commercial flights.

Bult’s runway, I am told, is too short for commercial flights, and the pavement is not thick enough to meet Federal Aviation Administration standards for such planes.

But the real question is why Will County, where the airfield is located, and the state of Illinois allowed Bult to buy the land and construct his field.

All of this was taking place in 2006-2007, as both Gov. Rod Blagojevich and Will County Executive Larry Walsh were claiming they supported construction of a third Chicago-area airport near Peotone. And the state had begun land acquisition for the South Suburban Airport.

The state and Will County could have stopped Bult at any time but chose not to do so.

So maybe Bult is right in his assumptions about government incompetence and stupidity.

I sure can’t imagine the state acquiring his property today for anything close to $1.5 million.

“Bult always figured one way or another he would come out all right,” a source said. “He would build his own airfield, fly his plane and helicopter, and if the state ever decided to go ahead with its airport, he would get paid off for his investment.”

As Butch Cassidy once told Sundance, “I got vision, and the rest of the world wears bifocals.”



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