It may bear its name, but the opportunity for the town of Griffith to own and operate the Griffith-Merrillville Airport has come and gone now that Gary/Chicago International Airport (GCIA) has acquired the facility in a $1.8 million deal announced on Dec. 13.
Following the Griffith Town Council meeting on Dec. 29, council members took questions about why they previously passed on the airport — and wished Gary well on having purchased the property and assets.
The Griffith Town Council initially considered the idea in February 2018 and conducted a financial study to that effect. After about nine months of study and discussion, the council voted on the matter. The vote was 4-1 against purchasing the airport, with Councilman Jim Marker, R-1st, voting in the minority.
“I am grateful that the Gary/Chicago Airport Authority also saw the important impact of the Griffith-Merrillville Airport,” Marker said. “As a councilman and pilot, I was disappointed that the Town of Griffith did not seize the opportunity to acquire the airport. I look forward to seeing its success under the new ownership.”
Town Council President Rick Ryfa, R-3rd, explained that questionable revenue streams made the airport a risky deal for Griffith.
“If you look at the numbers, most of the revenue is generated from storage units, and if you look at the FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) plan, they may force those storage units to come down,” Ryfa said. “That revenue could be gone, and we don’t have any experience running an airport. Gary has tons of experience running an airport. I think it worked out best for everyone.”
Councilman Tony Hobson, R-5th, added that if the town had purchased the airport and accepted FAA money to improve the facility, the town could have potentially lost control of future development of the property. Hobson and Ryfa said they were also concerned about the airport’s potential tax impact on Griffith residents and businesses.
“The bottom line is, the airport is not making money,” Ryfa said. “It’s a money loser when half of your income is on storage units and a big portion of the other income was on Chinese students that were there for aviation classes, who haven’t been there since probably pre-COVID. So the revenue was gone. Yeah, it was questionable for us.””
Gary officials said they used existing revenue previously budgeted for the purchase. The airport will continue to be managed by Craig Anderson, one of its owners who took part in the sale. Anderson will also continue to operate his fixed-base operator enterprise that serves about 65 business and recreational small plane owners.
Anderson said he initially began talking with the town of Griffith and then Gary airport officials. He said he’s been looking for a public buyer for about the past five years to ensure the airport’s sustainability.
“Griffith-Merrillville is a key reliever airport in the Indiana Aviation System,” Marty Blake, INDOT state aviation director, said in a statement.
Commenting on Gary’s announcement, GCIA executive director Dan Vicari said, “GCIA’s acquisition will allow for continued partnership with our office to improve facilities at Griffith-Merrillville and will reinforce the $21 million regional annual economic impact this airport provides.”
Vicari added that if Griffith-Merrillville Airport closed, Gary could have been overwhelmed with traffic from smaller single and twin engine planes. He explained that the FAA has provided millions of dollars to the Gary airport toward a mission of commercial and cargo operations with larger planes on its nearly 9,000-foot expanded runway. But because of an FAA policy change, privately-owned airports like Griffith-Merrillville are no longer eligible for federal grants.
Gary airport officials said cargo service was growing in Gary and the airport is now ranked third in the state on its freight volume. In 2020, GCIA began cargo service operations with the United Parcel Service (UPS), which signed a long-term lease agreement.
The Griffith-Merrillville Airport was completely rebuilt in 2001 and is designed for smaller aircraft that have a single wheel load of 38,000 pounds or a dual wheel load of 50,000 pounds. The airport consists of a paved and grooved 4,900-foot by-75-foot runway, with full pilot-controlled lighting.
Freelance reporter Carole Carlson contributed.
Jim Masters is a freelance reporter for the Post-Tribune.