Meigs Field Redevelopment on Hold Years After Airport Closure

Lack of action renews hope of reopening airport.

Meigs Field

Meigs Field

Meigs FieldLee Hogan

Nearly eight years after Mayor Richard M. Daley ordered the demolition of the runway at Meigs Field near downtown Chicago, very little has been done to implement the plans set forth for the manmade Northerly Island. What had been a flourishing airport since the late 1940s was to be redeveloped into a lush park and recreation center, which would cost around $100 million, as noted by political columnist Greg Hinz in a blog last week.

After all these years, only mere hints of the grand plans exist at Northerly Island. There is a bike path, a few young trees and some temporary structures on the island. The remainder of the property is covered with tall-grass fields. The Chicago Park District labels the island as a “nature area,” but its one that few people ever bother to visit.

The lack of action on the part of the city is as evident as the repercussions of the closure of the airport. The Friends of Meigs’ spokesman Steve Whitney claims that the business aviation climate has become increasingly difficult with the lack of a third airport as an alternative to the major Chicago-area airports, heavily congested by commercial air traffic. The March 2011 FAA Administrator’s Fact Book ranked Chicago’s O’Hare the second busiest FAA Towered airport in the country with 883,000 operations in 2010. Midway also ranked high on the list with 246,000 operations during the same year.

In addition to the lack of options for general aviation aircraft operators, Whitney claims that users of the airport surveyed by the Friends of Meigs spent $490 million annually in Chicago, and while Whitney was not prepared to say this number represents the loss of revenue for the city, the economic impact of the airport closure is likely significant. Additionally, the loss of jobs should be considered, not only at the airport, but since Meigs closed Whitney says the McCormick Place Convention Center, which is located within walking distance of Northerly Island, has seen a lot less traffic. Other than the possibility of a few new parks jobs, the only employment opportunities created by the redevelopment appears to be temporary jobs related to concerts and other public events that have been held on the island.

The closure of the airport also compromised medical evacuation capabilities for the citizens of the city as the helicopter rescue squad that was previously located at Meigs was forced to relocate, increasing the response time for needy patients.

It bears the question: Is there any chance the airport could reopen? While no real efforts are put forth by the Friends of Meigs at this time, Whitney believes the possibility is there. The end of the Daley rule, the lack of permanent park-related buildings and the continued existence of the airport terminal and other airport structures support Whitney’s opinion. He also said that, while Mayor Rahm Emanuel has indicated his intentions of following through with the park plans, there are no funds for such a major project. There is, however, money allocated for airport development.