The Chicago Rockford International Airport itself is a jewel — world class runways, extraordinarily competent administration and staff, and our own airspace.
Financially, it has run lean at about $10 million per year in total expense on only $3 million of tax revenue. The average homeowner pays about $25 per year in property tax for the airport.
The Chicago Rockford International Airport is owned and operated by the Greater Rockford Airport Authority, an independent governmental entity. The authority has seven commissioners. I have been honored to be chairman for the past seven years and speak for the board.
The overarching goal of this current board is to create jobs and economic benefit for our entire northern Illinois and southern Wisconsin region, so as to maximize the utilization and benefit of this billion-dollar asset.
Previous boards have sought to increase RFD’s economic footprint for the benefit of the entire region. In the 1990s, UPS came to RFD and has consistently expanded operations here, providing millions in investment, taxes and thousands of jobs. In 2014 and after, RFD aggressively pursued an Aircraft Maintenance and Repair facility and world class AAR Corporation came to Rockford. AAR now employs hundreds of high-tech aircraft maintenance workers.
The Rock Valley College Board had the vision to expand the college’s aviation department at RFD, increasing aircraft and powerplant graduates from 25 to 125 per year. In 2018, Amazon came, bringing over 1,000 jobs and millions in investment. Since 2010, private industry employment on the airport campus has ballooned to over 8,000 jobs.
The 40-year plan by the airport envisioned development use of the north side runway real estate first. It is now full. The remaining acreage for development is the “midfield,” located on the south side of the runway. The midfield has several physical and regulatory constraints, and the long-term layout was settled long ago after public hearings and required approvals.
The airport has carefully followed all relevant legal and regulatory requirements in the configuration of this midfield space. Millions in investment in the midfield have already been made based upon the development plan. The current $50 million dollar project is 65% or more complete.
The airport runway layout was configured and cemented in 40 years ago and hundreds of millions of dollars have been spent in utilization and building based upon the plans.
The runways can’t be moved, and, let me repeat, the north side of the airport is fully utilized.
Some might suggest that the airport has done enough. Some might suggest that Rockford has recovered from our rust belt status and 25% unemployment in the ’80s. Some might wish to mimic the 70-year-old short-sighted political decisions to reject the NIU main campus or routing the tollway away from downtown.
Global forces demolished our industrial dominance in screws, fasteners, machine tools and defense department contracts. Major corporations moved from our area or downsized.
Our citizens want to move beyond being known as no. 1 in negative lists. Multiple local economic advocacy groups and organizations, volunteer groups and others have spent literally thousands of man hours and millions over the years to ignite our local economy. Some might vote to ignore the present, looming opportunity presented to our region on a platter, and all the economic benefits that come with it.
If we don’t take this opportunity, cargo operators will go to places that can accommodate their need, and our opportunity will be gone. Not one of the seven airport commissioners has chosen to abandon the current project or the additional projects in sight.
We cannot give up control of the midfield acreage. What is the value of one human life saved from unemployment, poverty, drugs and imprisonment? Are solid employment opportunities the solution to these maladies? Most experts and all conventional wisdom suggest that meaningful employment can help to ameliorate these seemingly intractable human problems. Could thousands more jobs generated by our expansion save a life, a dozen lives? Maybe hundreds?
What to do about these kinds of problems are political and moral choices. Humanists prioritize people. Decades of previous board decisions underlay our current course. The airport’s land was deeded in 1946 to the authority for aeronautical purposes. It is not a park or a nature preserve.
The presence and proliferation of deer, geese, coyotes or other fauna on airport grounds are extremely dangerous to airport operations. Hinchliffe Forest Preserve adjoins RFD to the west across the Kishwaukee River. Atwood Park is a mile to the east. Winnebago County is home to over 18,000 acres of park and preserved property. These are appropriate targets for protection and preservation.
Many of the current critics of the midfield project are thoughtful, committed people. The airport board is also comprised of thoughtful, committed, diverse and local people, designated and legally authorized to decide these airport issues.
There is apparently some difference of opinion regarding the highest and best use of your tax dollars and the best way to leverage our airport assets to provide the greatest benefit to the most people.
Laws and regulations are used by civilized people to arbit and solve thorny disagreements between people of good faith on all sides of an issue. The airport has carefully followed the correct legal path in these regards and a difference of opinion about our stewardship is the right of every American.
Paul R. Cicero is chairman of the Greater Rockford Airport Authority Board of Commissioners.
This article originally appeared on Rockford Register Star: Region’s economy depends on development of airport’s midfield