Will County has been caught between a rock and an airport for more than a decade.
Oppose the South Suburban Airport near Peotone and the county risks losing control of the project to outsiders. Ignore the project, and the same thing could happen.
Push hard for it to be built as an economic development tool, and the airport could be a colossal failure, as is the MidAmerica Airport in Southern Illinois. That airport opened in 1998 with the promise of thousands of jobs, but wound up producing only 18, according to Aaron Quick, vice president of Farnsworth Group Inc.
Quick, who was hired by the county 10 years ago to help it sort out all of its airport issues, gave a newly reconfigured county board a primer on the project during a two-hour committee of the whole meeting on Thursday.
The meeting was called after some board members asked that the airport be pulled from the county's state and federal legislative agendas, documents that instruct the county's lobbyist what they should push for.
Judy Ogalla, R-Monee, in particular wanted the county to review its past stance, which has been to seek control of the airport and to protect eastern Will County residents and businesses during the process. She also is vice president of STAND, Shut This Airport Nightmare Down.
Quick made it clear during his presentation that the Will County governance plan for the airport is the only viable one out there.
A rival governance group called the Abraham Lincoln National Airport Commission was pushed hard by former U.S. Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr., a Chicago Democrat. While Jackson's political career imploded when he resigned his seat in November and pleaded guilty to misusing campaign funds last month, ALNAC still exists and it is made up of 21 home-rule municipalities.
"ALNAC is still a viable airport commission, and we're still eager to work with everybody to build an airport in the south suburbs," spokesman Rick Bryant told The Herald-News by phone.
Quick said during his presentation that ALNAC is fatally flawed because it arose out of a scheme by Elk Grove Village and Bensenville to block expansion of O'Hare International Airport. The ALNAC plan gives sole veto power to Elk Grove Village, a town 60 miles from Peotone, until the airport is built, he said.
That will never fly, Quick said. Will County's airport authority plan is much better, but the problem is county officials can't get traction in Springfield, said Republican Caucus Chairman Jim Moustis, R-Frankfort Township.
An airport authority must get approval by the Legislature and be signed by the governor. So far, the county's plan has only been OK'd by the state Senate.
Continued effort urged
But the county has to continue trying to push its plan, Quick stressed. And even though most eastern Will County residents and the Will County Farm Bureau oppose the airport because it will gobble up thousands of acres of farmland, the county can't sit idly by, most board members agreed on Thursday.
In the end, the board voted 18-2 with one abstention and one voting present, to put the airport back into its legislative agendas. The board also agreed to create a separate legislative document detailing its airport plan in the near future. Board member Walter Adamic, D-Joliet, summarized the board consensus.
"We need to have a seat at the table or we'll be on the menu," he said.
Moustis said the board also has to be willing to have the airport authority build an airport if it's deemed viable.
"You can't say we want to be the governing body, but we're opposing the airport," he said.
Ogalla voted no. She said she understands why the board doesn't want to be left out of the process, but she and her neighbors have endured harassment and intimidation as the Illinois Department of Transportation continues to buy land for the project.
"I actually live it every day," she said.
Court ruling expected
One day after the board reviewed its airport stance, a judge will rule Friday on whether IDOT can condemn land for the project. IDOT has spent almost $38 million to buy 2,667 acres from willing sellers, but the agency needs 5,800 acres for an inaugural airport footprint, so it has started to condemn land.
The Barbours have asked Judge Susan O'Leary to stop IDOT's condemnation of 300 acres the family owns in Will Township. They say the state shouldn't have the right to take land by force until the Federal Aviation Administration gives final approval for the airport.
A final decision by the FAA as to whether the airport should be built or not won't come for at least several years.
Quick said once the state finishes all of its work acquiring land and submitting reports and a governance plan is in place, it would take the FAA 18 months to two years to decide if a third regional airport is needed in the Chicago region.