Aldermen have questions about Midway lease plan

CHICAGO The City Council must approve the Midway lease deal for it to take place, and that will probably happen on Wednesday, but privatizing an airport as big as Midway is new territory and aldermen have a lot of questions.

What's an airport worth? Two-and-a-half billion if the deal to privatize Midway goes forward. But as some aldermen wondered today - how do we know that's the best price? Should we rely on blind trust?

"I'm just concerned that we're not getting what we could get had the time been two years ago, or the time move ahead to two years from now," said Ald. Tom Allen, 38th Ward.

"This is a unique opportunity for the City of Chicago to bring during these most tough economic times," said Paul Volpe, Chicago chief financial officer.

The Daley administration calls the Midway lease a unique opportunity, a deal which would provide the city with a billion dollars to use on infrastructure projects.

The private business consortium that would operate the airport for the next 99 years would make its money by adding more retail and food outlets to the terminal, and most probably by hiking some fees like parking.

The Vancouver, British Columbia, airport is privately operated and its retail operations may be something of a blueprint for what could happen at Midway.

"The quality and character, I would say, of the retail activity reminds me more of a shopping mall than it does of most airports," said John Schmidt, city lawyer for Midway lease.

"More restaurants, more buyers. Totally makes sense. But with the flights I'm concerned with the noise," said Ald. Mike Zalewski, 23rd Ward.

Under a private operator Midway probably will see more traffic, but there is a cap on operations. That won't change, and soundproofing of neighborhood homes and businesses would continue.

"Now for the important question: Naming rights. It cannot be changed," said Ald. James Balcer, 11th Ward.

Chicago police and fire would remain in charge of public safety at Midway. The lease sets aside millions to pay for it, though some aldermen are concerned that new security mandates could drive up future costs and shouldn't the operator pay the freight.

But the key item for council members is: "How's the new money from the lease deal going to be spent, and who decides?"

"We can come up with a whole plethora of ways to spend this money. But I want to be part of the plans to spend this money," said Ald. Anthony Beale, 9th Ward.

That is, for aldermen, perhaps the key point. If Midway is going to be leased, and the city gets a billion dollars for infrastructure and $100 million to spend as it best sees fit, the aldermen want a seat at the table when it comes to how the money's spent.

The mayor has specific ideas, but he won't make them known until his budget message next week.

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