Bill Aims to See if South Suburban Airport Will Fly

By Nick Reiher

In April 2017, Randy Blankenhorn, then Illinois Transportation Secretary, told a group of Will County business leaders six parties have shown interest in developing the long-discussed South Suburban Airport.
The state, which had purchased Bult Field at the center of the SSA the year before, wanted to see plans for a general aviation airport with a cargo component to handle the county’s growing logistics enterprises, comprising the largest inland port in North America.
What the state heard back was crickets. And the airport plan, discussed in various ways and with various sites for more than three decades, was dormant once more.
That meant Bult Field, purchased by the state for $34.5 million in 2016, and much of the land in the immediate footprint of the proposed airport expansion, has been leased back to farmers and other owners since the state has continued to purchase property. IDOT offers a link on the airport site, https://www.southsuburbanairport.com/SSA-home.htm, for those interested in renting land from them.
The airport website shows the state had paid more than $97 million to purchase around 4,500 acres of land in the project footprint, bordered by Monee, University Park and Crete on the north, and Peotone and Beecher on the south.
With all that state investment in mind and little to show for it, state Rep. Will Davis, D-Homewood, in February introduced an amendment to an existing airport development bill.
If passed, it would require the Illinois Department of Transportation to, within six months of adopting the bill, establish a process for prequalification of parties interested in developing a cargo airport.
Such a development would include both multimodal modes of freight transportation and centers of employment in logistics and manufacturing businesses, according to the amendment in Davis’ House Bill 2531.
“With all the logistics in the area, a cargo airport makes a lot of sense,” said Davis, whose 30th House District lay some five miles north of the SSA’s footprint in the Peotone-Monee area.
But he added the state has held up the residents around the proposed area too long. And they deserve an answer one way or another if any private party is interested in developing a cargo airport.
He knows of at least one possibility. During a meeting of business leaders at Governors State University. Davis declined to share the name of the party, but believed they may have done some work in developing cargo plans at Rockford Airport. He said he isn’t aware of any business they have done in Will County.
In addition to buying Bult Field, the state bought its first parcel of land in the airport footprint in 2001. Since then, they have purchased much of the land in the footprint. They also have completed most of the studies required by the FAA.
Davis hopes the amendment, if approved, will result in feasible plans from credible parties. If not, he adds, “it will have to be some type of economic development.”
State Rep. Anthony DeLuca, D-Chicago Heights, signed on as a co-sponsor. He said proponents as well as opponents of the airport development “have been in limbo too long. What we’re trying to do is find out … if a private developer can build a cargo airport.”
If there is suitable interest, Davis and DeLuca said there would need to be infrastructure improvements leading to the airport. Already, the state has set aside funds for a new interchange on Interstate 57, initially at Eagle Lake Road, just north of the Peotone weigh stations.
Neither would commit to resurrecting the dormant plans for the Illiana Tollway, put on hold along with the airport plans during Gov. Bruce Rauner’s budget stalemate. They said only that all options would need to be considered.
Meanwhile, Davis’ bill passed 9-0 in a bipartisan vote out of the State Government Administration Committee, with 287 proponents filing witness slips to 262 from opponents.
The bill was discussed briefly during the Will County Board’s recent Legislative Committee meeting. Members were briefed on the issue by its lobbyist, Lee Goodson Hassert.
Committee Chair Julie Berkowicz, R-Naperville, was concerned about prospective airport development and wanted to know more about the new issue, possibly issuing a resolution against the bill.
Board Chair Judy Ogalla, R-Monee, a longtime opponent of the airport development, suggested board members weigh in with their legislators as it goes to the House floor during the spring session.
With so many new members on the County Board, Ogalla told Farmers Weekly Review she would consider holding a committee-of-the-whole to bring everyone up to speed on the airport.
She was especially interested in what type of “economic development” could by used on that spot if an airport failed once again to attract any serious interest.
“Would they turn it into an Ag campus where they could teach sustainable farming?” she said. “Would they return the land to farmers so they could farm again on their own properties?
“Then, the communities could get back to living their lives.”

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