AOPA proposes $41 million grant to save Meigs and help parks

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AOPA President Phil Boyer explains AOPA's plan for Chicago to buy Meigs land.
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All of Chicago's major news organizations came to hear AOPA's proposal.
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Phil Boyer speaks with reporter about plan's benefits for both pilots and the city of Chicago.
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Meigs runway, visible from site of AOPA news conference. Special thanks to AOPA member Chuck Wenk [AOPA 229615] for arranging the location.

The Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA) today unveiled a bold plan that would bring an infusion of $41 million to the Chicago Park District through a federal aviation grant and restore Meigs Field Airport.

At a Chicago news conference attended by all of Chicago's major news media, including all of the local television stations, AOPA President Phil Boyer outlined what he called a win-win situation for both pilots and the city. The news conference was held in the prestigious Plaza Club on Prudential Plaza's fortieth floor, overlooking Meigs Field's still-X'd-out runway.

The AOPA plan calls for the park district, the current owner of the land, to sell Meigs to the city of Chicago for $41 million, which is the fair market value of the property based on a July 2001 appraisal conducted by a nationally recognized aviation expert. As operator and sponsor of Meigs, the city can apply for and obtain the funds necessary to purchase Meigs through the Federal Aviation Administration's Airport Improvement Program (AIP). Additionally, the influx of capital would allow the park district to use part of Northerly Island, where Meigs is located, to create a new park and improve others.

"This is a sensible solution to the Meigs issue for everyone," Boyer said. "Purchase of the Meigs property from the park district by the city would be an uncomplicated process, using FAA funds that are set aside specifically for aviation infrastructure projects as well as the acquisition of airports for public use. These new park district funds, which would otherwise be unavailable to them, will give them significant resources to improve existing parks, as well as create a new one on Northerly Island, where there's adequate space for both Meigs and a park to co-exist."

"We and everyone else thought there was a solid deal in place to preserve Meigs," Boyer said, "so there was no longer a need to pursue the proposal. But the mayor's unilateral actions on March 30 clearly brought that deal to an end, and we're bringing this great opportunity once again to the city and the park district.

"Meigs Field is a showcase and a transportation icon of Chicago," Boyer said. "The AIP funds would not only preserve this important link to Chicago's downtown and convention businesses, but it also would give the park district some much-needed revenue to maintain and improve existing parks and services. The city and park district just don't have the money budgeted to pay for the $30 million needed to convert Meigs Field into a park, as the mayor has proposed. This solution makes good financial sense."

The $41 million appraised value of Meigs was based on a three-day inspection of the airport and its facilities in July 2001 by Michael A. Hodges, MAI, a certified general real estate appraiser and specialist in commercial airport operations. In a letter sent to the AOPA last week, Hodges stated "there has been little or no impact on aviation market conditions since" his original appraisal "as they relate to Meigs Field."

AOPA initially retained Hodges to conduct the appraisal because an agreement between the mayor and then-Governor Jim Edgar was about to expire; that agreement had guaranteed that Meigs would stay open for five years, after which the city could "do with the property as it wished" without state interference. The fair market value appraisal was done with the assumption that the airport would remain open and continue to be operated with a 3,899-foot runway and associated infrastructure and improvements.

The head of the FAA's airport division reconfirmed in a May 20 letter that the AOPA proposal falls within the guidelines for the use of AIP funds. Support for the proposal also has been received from both local and national figures, including the Friends of Meigs, former Secretary of Transportation Sam Skinner, and Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), chairman, Committee on the Environment and Public Works.

Sen. Inhofe said he believes the plan would work and would endorse it at the federal level. "We can't lose this national asset," he said. "I was outraged when Meigs was bulldozed. It's kind of hard to be sensitive to a state's infrastructure when one of its mayors goes out in the middle of the night and destroys millions of dollars of infrastructure."

Skinner, who is now CEO of Chicago-based USF Corporation, called the AOPA proposal "a creative use" of the FAA's AIP funds and is a "perfect example of the kind of win-win solution government and industry can achieve when they work together to meet the needs of all their constituents." Good transportation is "a critical factor that corporations consider when deciding whether to stay in or relocate to Chicago," he said. "A decision by the city to accept this proposal will send an important message to corporations throughout the world that the city understands their needs and will meet them now and in the future."

Boyer said his group would "work aggressively to fast track the AIP grant at the FAA." Traditionally, the federal share of aviation projects submitted and approved under AIP is 90 percent, which would cover approximately $36.9 million of the appraised value, Boyer said. "It would be necessary to acquire the balance of about $4.1 million from other sources, which could include state of Illinois funding through the state's aviation program or a special legislative allocation," he said. Obtaining AIP funding would require the airport remain in operation for 20 years.

Since Meigs was shut and the runway disabled by the mayor on March 30, air traffic at Chicago's other airports has increased. According to Ray Gibbons, president of the Chicago chapter of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, "Since the closure of Meigs, controllers at Midway and O'Hare are reporting a dramatic increase in smaller aircraft that formerly landed at Meigs. This is clogging up the airways and significantly increasing the complexity of what our controllers can handle."

"There is strong national interest in reopening Meigs, not just because it is an aviation icon but also because Chicago has a serious capacity issue," Boyer said. "This proposal is a winning resolution to a long-term dispute. The park district would get significant new funding to improve programs and create a new park near Meigs, and the city of Chicago would continue to have a premier downtown airport."

The nearly 400,000-member Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, based outside of Washington, D.C., represents general aviation—all flying except scheduled airlines and the military. More than two thirds of the nation's active pilots are AOPA members, as are some 13,700 Illinois pilots.


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