With gospel music blaring and angry picketers shouting, pastors prayed, preached and sprinkled holy water over the site of the proposed airport near Peotone on Saturday morning.
Busloads of people gathered in Monee on Saturday in support of the airport, an event organized by U.S. Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. and the community groups South Suburban Action Conference and Gamaliel of Metro Chicago.
A simultaneous rally was held nearby by those who oppose the airport. Jackson did not speak with a group of local protesters who attended part of his event.
Jackson’s “Blessing of the Land” rally began outside New Hope Community Church, where Jackson and other pastors fired up the crowd with sermon-like speeches and prayers, punctuated with “amens” and applause from the audience.
“When the economy gets bad, we’re hurt the most because we don’t have an economic engine to support our families,” said Kevin Brumfield, of Matteson, who attended the rally.
“I’ve been hearing about this for 20 years,” Brumfield said. “I’m hopeful. I’m a religious person. In order for things to happen, you have to believe and never give up the fight.”
Jackson, who will face Brian Woodworth in November for the 2nd Congressional District seat, is trying to convince Gov. Pat Quinn to sign off on his idea to have private developers build the airport.
The governor will explore all options to finance the airport, including public-private partnerships, Quinn’s press secretary, Brooke Anderson, said in an email.
Building the airport, Jackson said, would create thousands of jobs and help equalize the south suburbs and south side of Chicago with the north side and north suburbs.
If the airport issues are not resolved by June 1, Jackson vowed to camp out and “occupy” the state-owned land in the footprint of the airport.
Things got a bit dicier Saturday when Jackson and his supporters traveled out to a country road that lies in the footprint of the proposed airport.
There, Jackson and a group of pastors stood on a flatbed trailer, spoke, prayed and sprinkled holy water on the ground. A ceremonial groundbreaking was held on the shoulder of the road.
A smaller group representing those opposed to the airport were there, too, carrying signs such as “Caution Snakes,” “Jackson Lies, Crops Die” and “Make Food, Not Pollution.”
The group stood in a field behind Jackson’s flatbed trailer holding the signs, shouting “Liar” and “Jesus wouldn’t do this to us” while he and others spoke.
Their shouts were largely muffled by the gospel music and speaker system on the trailer. Police and members of Jackson’s entourage attempted to keep the groups separate.
“It doesn’t matter where you come from. It’s not right, and it’s not fair to take land away from people for an airport that has not been approved by the (Federal Aviation Administration),” said Judy Ogalla, vice president of Shut This Airport Nightmare Down (STAND) and a candidate for the Will County board.
The state has been working on land acquisition for more than 10 years and already has spent $33 million buying 2,317 acres, said Guy Tridgell, spokesman for the Illinois Department of Transportation.
The FAA approved the airport footprint in 2002 and is working to assess the environmental impact of the construction and operation of the airport, Tridgell said.
“(Jackson is) trying to override the state, override the Will County board. It’s his way or the highway. That’s not going to work,” Will Township Supervisor Brian Cann said. “There are too many negatives in his plan to actually make it come to fruition.”
One of the developers Jackson is working with, SNC-Lavalin, is under investigation by Canadian police for $56 million in payments for nonexistent projects. Earlier this month, the World Bank temporarily barred a unit of SNC-Lavalin from bidding on new bank projects after an investigation into a bridge project in Bangladesh.
“That has no impact at all on the airport division,” Jackson said, when asked about SNC-Lavalin’s troubles.
Will County Board member Cory Singer also attended the rally and called for Quinn and the state to take Jackson out of the planning process.
“Congressman Jackson continues to make the case that he has $700 million that’s promised from SNC-Lavalin and that $700 million is guaranteed by the Canadian government. Congressman Jackson does not have a guarantee by the government,” Singer said. “This is a stunt. We’ve seen for 10 years Congressman Jackson doing stunt after stunt.”
Jackson insisted that both developers, SNC-Lavalin and LCOR Inc., are capable of financing the airport project on their own.
“This is a public-private partnership,” Jackson said, when asked about Will County officials’ desire to lead the airport planning project. “No one is investing any energy in iron-fisted politicians.”