Meigs two years later: From airplanes to Aerosmith?

It has been two years since Mayor Richard M. Daley ordered the midnight demolition of Merrill C. Meigs Field (CGX) in Chicago. The closure came without public notice. Not even the FAA or owners of aircraft based at the airport had any warning.

Now the land is slated to become an outdoor event venue – at least temporarily.

According to Jessica Faulkner, director of communications for the Chicago Parks District, the venue, labeled the Northerly Island Concert Theater in the artist renderings of the project, will cover approximately 4.6 acres and seat 8,000 people. Clear Channel Entertainment will operate it. “They have a three-year contract with two one-year extension options,” Faulkner said. “The acts will be family friendly.”

The facility is slated to be operational by June. Money raised by the events, an estimated $800,000 a year, will be used to pay for construction of a permanent nature park. Clear Channel will be responsible for the cost of building the temporary facility. Designs for the facility are in the preliminary stages and could change, Faulkner added.

Meanwhile, The Friends of Meigs Field, a volunteer organization created in 1995 to support the airport, is still trying to build public support for the creation of a combination airport, nature park and air museum.

“One of the things that makes our plan attractive is that it could be paid for with federal funds through the Airport Improvement Program,” said Steve Whitney, president. “The money generated by the park and the museum could be used to support other parks in the city.”

According to Whitney, the group submitted its proposal to the Parks District months ago, when the agency asked for public input. However, the proposal has run into opposition from Parks District officials. Whitney claims that during a public meeting in February they were ordered to remove drawings of their proposal.

“We put them up so people could see the idea and they told us no one could have drawings,” said Whitney. “It was supposed to be an idea session, but they had already decided to go with the mayor’s idea of a nature preserve. When it became clear they were not going to listen to us, we left. Of the 75 people in the meeting, approximately 50 walked out. We held a rally in the hallway.”

Faulkner said she had not heard about the rally in the hallway or the plans for an airport/park/air museum on the island. She also pointed out that the Parks District builds parks, not airports, so although it owns the land, it is not the right agency to talk to about building an airport.

According to information from the Parks Department website, plans for the nature preserve predate the airport. In 1909 Daniel H. Burnham, the original designer of the park, intended for it to be a natural setting with beaches, lagoons and green space.

The airport was built in 1946-47 with a 50-year lease slated to expire in 1996, but after extensive negotiations Mayor Daley agreed to keep the airport open until 2026. He didn’t honor that agreement.

In October 2004 the FAA said it would fine the city of Chicago $33,100 for the improper closure of Meigs. The FAA is also investigating the possible misuse of $1.49 million in restricted airport funds. The money was supposed to be used for improvements at other Chicago area airports, but it was allegedly paid to contractors who tore up the runway at Meigs Field.

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