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Plane Talk/Natarus's Pet Project

Peotone Airport's Condition Is Anything but Terminal

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Anyone who thinks plans to build a third airport died with Mayor Daley's dream for Lake Calumet should have been at the Holiday Inn in Harvey last week for the luncheon of the south suburban chamber of commerce.

It was there that one of Governor Edgar's top transportation planners made it clear that the state's ready to spend billions, if that's what it takes, to build an airport in the cornfields of Peotone, some 40 miles south of the city. As far as Edgar's concerned, the new airport's coming--the state's already spent millions of state dollars in plans and preparations. And anyone who doesn't like it (Mayor Daley, in particular) might as well shut up and get out of the way.

"We have a winning financial plan, the market is there, the people are there," Linda Wheeler, a planner with the Illinois Department of Transportation, told her audience of nearly 500 sympathetic businessmen. "All the work done as of today has not uncovered any critical problems."

What she didn't mention was the other point of view: the Peotone plan stinks. It siphons investment from the city to spur the growth of exurbia, while promising cash-starved southern suburbs like Harvey a bonanza Edgar can't possibly deliver.

That's how Mayor Daley sees it, anyway. "They're selling this as a boon for the south suburbs and it's not," says Lisa Howard, a spokeswoman for the city's Department of Aviation. "Any development spurred by the airport will be miles from these communities that need it the most."

From the city's perspective a third airport (along with the new south suburban tollways that would feed it) will spur the kind of sprawling development that's disfigured much of suburban Cook, Lake, and Du Page counties.

Daley no longer argues, as he did years ago, that a new airport is needed for all the passengers who might otherwise fly out of Saint Louis or Saint Paul. Instead, Daley says any increase in air-traffic demand can be handled out of Midway and O'Hare.

"We feel there's plenty of capacity at Chicago's airports to grow," Howard says. "So much has changed since Mayor Daley proposed Lake Calumet. There's not been the growth people once projected; the trend's against new airports. They cost too much money to build and the central question remains: Who's going to pay for them?"

Certainly the airlines don't want to (particularly after so many have spent so much rebuilding their terminals at O'Hare). All the major airlines publicly oppose the Peotone proposal.

In reality, the struggle between Daley and Edgar is about money. The Republicans have long hungered to feast from O'Hare's trough (apparently, their take from the unbridled boom in Du Page and Lake counties is not enough). For years they've threatened to cut off funding for city schools unless Chicago cut them in. And at one point years ago, in a moment of madness generated by Council Wars, white northwest and southwest-side Democrats almost did just that--just to bedevil Mayor Harold Washington.

But Daley won't budge on this issue. Earlier this year he struck a deal with Indiana, permanently freezing out the Republicans by creating the Chicago-Gary Regional Airport Authority, which controls money spent and raised at Midway, Gary, Meigs, and O'Hare.

After that, there was little Edgar and his allies could do but howl in anger and plot revenge--thus the push for Peotone.

To win support they'll go anywhere and say anything, as the overflow crowd at last week's Harvey affair can attest. The crowd had been promised Illinois Department of Transportation secretary Kirk Brown, but he was home nursing a sore back so Wheeler spoke instead. "Kirk's fond of saying that where there are two people who are together, he wants to talk about the third airport," she began. "So you know he would like to be here."

She went on to advance an argument that ironically echoed virtually everything Daley used to say: O'Hare's overused; without a new airport more travelers will fly out of other cities; construction won't cost taxpayers a cent (yes, Daley once said that too). Wheeler said the state would repay the billions it borrows to build the airport with a tax on the passengers who use it. She also said federal funds will be available, though in this age of Gingrich where the feds will find money for an airport Daley doesn't want she didn't explain.

She concluded with a subtle jab at Chicago. "You hear people in downtown Chicago say they will find it inconvenient to use this airport. That's true. But a lot of us live out here."

Then a chamber leader finished the meeting by wishing Brown well: "Obviously he's carrying the weight of the airport on his shoulders, and it's affecting his back."

After the luncheon I drove through Harvey to interview folks on the street. They were all skeptical about the airport, though their town could use a boost. The local papers are filled with stories of bankruptcy and unemployment, many of the downtown stores are vacant, and there are few residential side streets without at least one vacant house.

At the long-abandoned and boarded-up shopping mall on Dixie Highway, where a scene from The Blues Brothers was filmed, a 40-year-old man who called himself John was passing by with his fiancee and three young children.

"If you don't have a car you won't have nothing going on," John said. "Only thing that's creating jobs around here is the hospital. But I ain't heard nothing about this airport." He turned to his fiancee: "You heard about it?"

She shook her head.

He looked around the crumbling parking lot scarred with weeds. "I had hopes for this place, but that actor passed on."

"You mean John Belushi?"

"Yes. We was hoping that after that movie he'd come back and sink some money into Harvey. But then he passed and we're stuck with this.

"I'll put it to you this way: if they're gonna build a new airport it'll be a while before any of the money gets to Harvey."

Natarus's Pet Project

A press release headlined "A Matter of Conscience" wandered in with the rest of the mail one day last week. It came from 42nd Ward alderman Burt Natarus, and it explained why the city's recently passed animal-control ordinance, requiring the muzzling of "dangerous dogs," had to be changed.

The press release went on to say that "certain inaccuracies appeared in the articles" about the City Council meeting where the ordinance passed. "I was not 'teary-eyed'; I am not a 'dog breeder';...I did not apologize for my long-standing advocacy of animals' rights."

Now, Alderman Natarus is a voluble sort, unafraid to bare his soul, so I called right away to see what was on his mind.

"I'm against muzzling," he explained. "There's a very interesting book called When Animals Weep, and it's about animals and how they do have emotions and they do have feelings. I think muzzling infuriates the dog, and you're not contributing to anything. So I have introduced an amendment that says you cannot permanently muzzle dogs. A muzzle can be used to break up an altercation. Say there was a fight--someone would run and get a muzzle as a tool. Get it?"

And what about the teary-eyed stuff?

"Oh, that's Franny Spielman. She wrote that I was crying during the debate. She doesn't like me. I don't know why."

But wait a minute--Spielman writes for the Sun-Times, and they love you.

"What?"

They invited you to the black-tie affair they had for their new owner; I saw your name on the guest list the Sun-Times ran.

"Oh, I get invited to those things all the time. This one was quite a soiree. David Brinkley was there, and so was George Will, Margaret Thatcher, Ann Landers, and Kup. As I recall, I sat at a table with the editor of the Southtown and a lady who was the head of the teachers union. I don't know how I got placed at that table.

"I didn't get a chance to talk to Thatcher, but two years ago I had a little disagreement with her at a [book-signing event]. She was talking about 'the Jews of the Gaza,' as if to say they didn't belong there. I said, 'Where did David kill Goliath? Where did Delilah seduce Samson?' She said, 'What do you mean?' I said, 'Both of these things happened in Gaza.' She didn't like that too much, but so what! You know me, I'm not afraid to open my mouth."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Jon Randolph.

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