Friday, September 4, 2009

South Suburban Airport fits pay-to-play system


Chicago and Wilmette
Chicago and Wilmette (Photo credit: Frank Kehren)
Since the late 1980’s, Illinois officials and their agents have tried every available means to push a huge public works project to fruition, with a keen eye toward ensuring their own political futures and continuing cycle of self-enrichment.

The project is a 23,000-acre airport three times the size of Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport, one of the busiest airports in the world. The state’s desired location is a small farming community north of the Village of Peotone, in eastern Will County, about 40 miles south of downtown Chicago. The project is often called the Peotone Airport.

Airport boosters have dismissed the long-standing practice of producing crops in eastern Will County. Instead, they view the prime farmland as vacant and prime for development. The people most affected, including the local governments of three of the surrounding communities and several adjacent townships, have resisted the development for more than two decades. But, the efforts of this sparsely-populated, politically-innocent region has fallen prey to Illinois’ well-funded, long-entrenched political "pay-to-play" scheme, one that rewards supporters and contributors with lucrative jobs and contracts.

Tax dollars have funded a multitude of government lobbyists who make regular trips to Washington, D.C. and Illinois’ capital of Springfield to guarantee that despite its inability to gain traction on its own; this is the project that will not die. Airport supporters have left tracks on campaign contribution lists and at political fundraisers for years.

CHICAGO, IL - NOVEMBER 5:  Illinois Governor P...
Illinois Governor Pat Quinn (Image credit: Getty Images via @daylife)
Instead of following through on his promise to clean up government, Gov. Patrick Quinn is following in the footsteps of his predecessors on the Peotone project. Ex-Illinois Governor George Ryan now resides in a federal penitentiary, convicted on numerous charges of corruption.

CHICAGO, IL - DECEMBER 7:  Former Illinois Gov...
CHICAGO, IL - DECEMBER 7: Former Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich (C) holds hands with wife Patti Blagojevich (R) as they get in an elevator in the Dirksen Federal Building December 7, 2011 in Chicago, Illinois. Blagojevich was sentenced to 14 years in prison after he was found guilty of 17 public corruption charges. (Image credit: Getty Images via @daylife)
Ex-Governor Rod Blagojevich was roused from his bed in the early morning hours last winter by FBI agents who took him into custody. He was later impeached by the Illinois legislature. Among other things, he was accused of trying to sell a seat in the U.S. Senate, formerly held by President Barack Obama, to the highest bidder.

One of those bidders was identified as Congressman Jesse Jackson, Jr., D-Chicago, one of the airport's biggest proponents. He too is being investigated.

English: Former Illinois Governor George Ryan
English: Former Illinois Governor George Ryan (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Despite numerous factors that threaten to shelf the decades-old project, the former Lt. Governor under Blagojevich, Quinn pushed for another $100 million to buy land for the airport. Land acquisition, started in 2001 when Ex-Gov. Ryan paved the way. The state bought numerous unsold lots in an upscale subdivision belonging to one of his campaign contributors. The housing development was located just outside the airport boundaries, but was close enough to initiate a selling frenzy.

Together with threats of eminent domain, an inability to sell property in the doomed real estate market long-manipulated by the threat of an airport nearby, and the fear of the future; some landowners sold to the state. They simply gave up and moved on with their lives. The first talk of an airport in the Peotone area was a headline in the local newspaper forty years ago, in 1968.

Many of the remaining families who live in the airport footprint are what the state calls, "unwilling sellers." They have dug in their heels, refusing to be intimidated. Undaunted, the state continues its efforts to coerce real estate sales. Some landowners have farmed there for generations.

Several farms have been in the same family for more than 100 years, honored as centennial farms; by the same state that now wants to take it from them. In some cases huge signs marking “Illinois Centennial Farm” is down the road from signs that read, “State Property No Trespassing.” Many believe the only reason the state hasn’t used eminent domain is because they would have a tough time proving there is a project in a court of law. No need has ever been proven for the project nor has it been authorized by the Federal Aviation Administration.

The state owns about one-third of the land needed to build a scaled-down “starter airport,” with only one runway and a terminal building. Ryan decided that the only way to gain approval for the mega airport was to start small. He decided to propose building the "inaugural airport," reducing the size from 23,000 acres to 4,000.

With unending funds, tied directly to the pockets of Illinois taxpayers, the public relations work continues. Upwards of $100 million has been spent on what the state has called ‘studies.’ In actuality, the ‘studies’ are a set of organized reports, containing cherry-picked pieces of data tied together to induce a favored outcome. Since the beginning, and to this day, consultants, lobbyists, and other campaign contributors form a closed circle of airport backers.

Will County government, which would have jurisdiction over the airport if it was ever built, has long been on the state’s bandwagon, despite a majority of residents opposed to the project. County officials recently hired a consultant. They also employ a lobbyist.

Will County supports an effort to write a new law to establish an airport authority which would take effect even before an airport is built. Their aim is to thwart the efforts of Congressman Jesse Jackson, Jr., D-Chicago who started an airport authority of his own.

For more than twenty years, an organized group opposed to the airport, has found it difficult to gain traction against the systemic political machine in Illinois with its 'pay-to-play' structure heavy with lobbyists and campaign contributors. It is a never-ending cycle that must be broken.


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