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3/27/05 Crain's

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From Crain's Chicago Business, 3/27/05:
Crain's Chicago Business

Meigs 2 years later: It's for the birds

City never recovered lost air traffic;
park plan has no funding

By Steven R. Strahler

Chicago-area airports have failed to recapture a majority of flights lost when Mayor Richard M. Daley abruptly closed Meigs Field two years ago this week to make way for a park project that has yet to materialize. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) figures show that flights by corporate jets and other so-called general aviation aircraft into and out of the city's two remaining airports and three others in the area rose by an estimated 10,500 over the last two years. During its heyday, Meigs handled 30,000 to 40,000 flights annually.

Meigs Field in March 2003 (left) and March 2005. Photos: Precision Aerial Photo

The net decline comes as corporate jet use has increased in the wake of Sept. 11. The FAA expects corporate jet activity this year to be 12% above 2001 levels. Midway Airport and north suburban Palwaukee Municipal Airport have registered the biggest gains since 2002. Managers of farther-out airports report the Meigs closing has had a negligible impact.

Sales of jet fuel by the DuPage Airport Authority rose 13% last year, says Executive Director David Bird. The number of business jets based at Aurora Municipal Airport jumped 10 last year to 45, says Director Robert Rieser.

Signs of activity at Meigs' former home, meanwhile, are negligible. The airstrip has been ripped out; a nature sanctuary and walking trail have been dedicated; the terminal building awaits redevelopment.

Meigs Field in March 2003 (left) and March 2005. Photos: Precision Aerial Photo


The Chicago Park District says $500,000 has been spent since August to plant 500 trees and prairie grasses and install pathways and benches on the 91-acre Northerly Island, but that it will be three to five years before much more happens. In the interim, a concert venue that could generate $800,000 for the Park District during the first year is under consideration.

By fall, the district hopes to have "three, maybe four preliminary conceptual designs" to present to community meetings, according to General Superintendent Timothy Mitchell. "Ultimately . . . we have to figure out the money," he says. (An 8-year-old proposal by the Lake Michigan Federation carried a $26-million price tag, he says.)

Meanwhile, the Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce says Meigs' closing may have disrupted but did not depress business travel to the Loop. "People have found other methods," says President and CEO Jerry Roper.

But not everybody.

David Vornholt, a commercial property manager in Lima, Ohio, says he used to fly to Meigs once a month for business and client entertainment. He says he'll do most of that in Ohio now after a $180 roundtrip cab fare between the Gary/Chicago International Airport and the Loop.

Likewise, Curt Drumm, an executive vice-president at appliance maker Metalware Corp. in Manitowoc, Wis., now drives once or twice a year to Chicago, compared with 10 to 15 trips annually through Meigs. "It just floors me that someone who wants to promote business in the city would shut down an asset like that," he says.

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