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Plan for south suburban airport near Peoton picks up again, now focused on cargo – Chicago Tribune


A long-discussed proposal for a new airport in Chicago’s south suburban area is gaining momentum again, now with an emphasis on air cargo as e-commerce warehouses and logistics facilities thrive in the area.

Proponents believe the airport could take advantage of demand for express delivery and increased Amazon warehouses, rail facilities and highways in Will County. At least one developer is already interested in building an airport and nearby warehouses, a project that would be the culmination of decades of efforts to build an airport near Peatone.

But the plan has faced opposition for years. Opponents, including environmentalists and Will County farmers, say the airport would be a waste of rich farmland and public money, cause environmental problems and encourage urban sprawl. Nearby airports already have cargo facilities. And after decades of talk, some are skeptical that the airport will move forward at all.

“Peotone Airport has always been a solution in search of a problem,” said Kevin Brubaker, associate director of the Center for Environmental Law and Policy.

A bill pending in the Illinois Legislature seeks to jumpstart the project by ordering the state to begin a process of soliciting proposals from developers. The goal is to determine the viability of building an airport, state Rep. Will Davis, a Homewood Democrat who sponsored the bill, said during a hearing on the concept Wednesday.

“We see this as economic development for our region,” he said. “Not only our region, but the entire state of Illinois. And now we are losing to pairs of our neighboring states.”

The concept also received support from both of Chicago’s mayoral candidates. Brandon Johnson said during a candidate forum Thursday that transit can serve as an anchor for the economic center of the city’s south side and the south suburbs, while Paul Wallace said it should be combined with expanded transit and connected to the central business district.

Speaking at a recent, unrelated press conference about his support for a third airport in Chicago that focused on cargo, Gov. J. B. Pritzker said that securing interest from freight carriers will be key to the project.

“What you don’t want is, ‘If you build it, they will come,’ right?” he said. “Just building the thing and hoping people show up to basically pay for the airport to be built. You have to make sure you build it because you have interest from cargo carriers who are committed to making it a cargo airport.”

The airport has been discussed for decades and was first proposed as a third passenger airport in the Chicago area. Over the years it progressed in starts and stops as plans changed.

The concept involves the expansion of a small general aviation airport known as Bult Field. The Illinois Department of Transportation owns the site and has purchased most, though not all, of the remaining land needed for the expansion. The state has also allocated money to build a new interchange on I-57 that will connect the expressway to the airport, but IDOT is still in the early stages of the road project and has no timetable for construction, spokeswoman Maria Castaneda said.

Outbuildings and houses near the runway at Bult Field in Money, a possible site for a South Suburban airport.

However, industrial developer Paul Ahern, owner of Tandem Development Group, sees potential for the site. He wants to build warehouses in addition to the airport and said he is part of a team that plans to bid on developing the airport itself when the opportunity arises.

Will County’s rail lines, intermodal facilities and highways make it a logical choice for a cargo airport, he said. Major retailers like Amazon there are warehouses nearby. And Illinois’ central location in the United States makes it attractive to foreign companies that want American-made products or need to supply expensive goods such as pharmaceuticals, electronics or machine parts.

Ahern noted the growth of Chicago’s Rockford International Airport, where he helped develop a cargo hub. Opened during the Great Recession, the building sat vacant for several years while it struggled to recruit air travel tenants, and the airport eventually purchased the property. But as logistics in the region developed and the recession eased, the airport boomed, he said.

“(Rockford) international success is the best way to put it,” Ahern said. “So I decided, knowing the growth of the industrial sector in Will County, ‘You know, a third airport as a cargo airport makes a lot of sense.'”

Opponents point to the advantage of other cargo airports nearby. But Ahern said he sees enough demand to go around.

Gary Chicago International Airport in Indiana is looking to expand air cargo service by expanding its parking lot to accommodate larger planes, although there are no plans to add another runway, an airport spokesman said.

To the north, a new 288,000-square-foot air cargo facility is under construction at Milwaukee Mitchell International Airport, which could be completed in late 2024 if it receives final approval. CBRE, the leasing firm for the project, is pitching the facility as a “legitimate option for freight tenants who want to avoid the much higher congestion and costs associated with centering operations out of O’Hare (International Airport).”

And in Rockford, there is an airport expansion that has moved forward since the attempt was denied on Wednesday to halt construction on ancient prairie and habitat for the endangered rusty patched bumblebee.

The Rockford airport has been successful and thriving for decades, said state Sen. Steve Stadelman, D-Rockford. The airport’s location near Chicago, but outside of major traffic jams, was a draw, he said.

“E-commerce seems to be expanding, it’s a huge growth area,” he said.

Rick Bryant, an adviser to U.S. Rep. Robin Kelly, a supporter of the Peaton airport, said another airport in the south suburbs could be viable even with other nearby expansions. Air cargo carriers can operate from two hubs in a major metro area, located at opposite ends of the area and bypassing congestion in the city center.

Dozens of air carriers already operate from airports in northern Illinois, including some from O’Hare and Rockford. O’Hare has more than two dozen air carriers, including FedEx, Air China Cargo and DHL. Rockford-based carriers include Atlas Air, Nippon Cargo and Cargolux.

South Suburban Airport can too eventually attracting shippers like Amazon and UPS. Amazon has opened 20 fulfillment and sorting centers in the state, 20 delivery stations and other fulfillment centers for Prime Now and Amazon Fresh, according to the company.

UPS operates from nearby airports with approximately 40 arrivals and 40 departures each weekday. Most of them – about 32 – are from Rockford, about six from O’Hare and two from Gary.

Both companies declined to comment on the proposed new airport.

At a legislative hearing Wednesday, Reggie Greenwood, executive director of the Chicago Southland Economic Development Corp., said demand for the new cargo airport is driven by an explosion of e-commerce and manufacturing returning to the U.S. from overseas.

As of 2018, the share of e-commerce in retail sales is increasing from 10.7% of sales in January 2018 to 16.6% in December 2022, according to US Census Bureau data provided by the National Retail Federation.

Recently, e-commerce giant Amazon was among the tech companies that implemented mass layoffs. The decision was part of a broad cost-cutting move to trim a growing workforce as sales fall due to pandemic outbreaks and fears remain of a potential recession.

But Greenwood said the area has experienced an “industrial boom” in recent years. He also highlighted the potential benefits of the airport, saying it would create jobs in an area with a large population of color and preserve investment in the state.

“The economic impact of such a development would be enormous,” he said.

Estimates by aviation consultant RA Wiedemann and Associates, commissioned by the Southland Economic Development Corporation and based on an analysis of other cargo airports, say the airport could create between 900 and 2,500 on-site jobs.

But to attract truckers and logistics companies, the airport will need an access road and storage facilities, according to the study.

Chris Kessler, director of policy for the environmental nonprofit Openlands, told lawmakers the airport would be an “environmental disaster.” According to him, the project involves the construction of wetlands, the degradation of miles of streams and the destruction of floodplains.

It would also likely destroy family farms and move industry to an area that doesn’t have the infrastructure for it, he said.

“The low-flying aircraft, and the pollution and stress on our natural resources that will follow, will have a devastating effect on the region, especially the Tallgrass Midwest National Prairie,” Kessler said, reading a letter from the organization’s president.

ELPC’s Brubaker said the airport would cause sprawl. He also said it would bring industrial growth to the region by encouraging the destruction of floodplains and wetlands.

“Why build all this to create something we don’t need?” he said.

The president of the nearby village of Crete, Michael Einhorn, said he has heard about the proposed airport almost all of the more than three decades he has been in office. He said he would delay making a decision on the airport until he saw a concrete plan.

“It’s been going on for so long that it’s very hard to blame,” he said.

Chicago Tribune reporter Alice Yin and The Associated Press contributed.




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