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Helicopter Tour Company to Make Pitch to Bridgeport, Pilsen Residents

By Casey Cora | March 7, 2014 7:02am
 A rendering of the proposed heliport in Bridgeport
A rendering of the proposed heliport in Bridgeport
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Chicago Helicopter Express

BRIDGEPORT — For months, neighbors in Bridgeport and Pilsen have wanted to ask the leaders of a helicopter tour company a few questions about their proposed $12.5 million operation on the banks of the Chicago River.  

They'll have their chance next week. 

Community meetings are scheduled for both neighborhoods, first with a March 11 forum at St. Barbara Parish, 2830 S. Quinn St. in Bridgeport and then on March 12 at Pilsen's La Catrina Cafe, 1011 W. 18th St. Both will start at 6:30 p.m. 

Chicago Helicopter Express, which operates from the north suburban Chicago Executive Airport, is looking to move its operation to the south branch of the Chicago River at 24th and Halsted streets in Bridgeport.

The proposal includes the creation of 14 pads for launching and landing the company's tour and charter helicopters, as well as private aircraft. Tours would run from 10 a.m.-10 p.m. daily, but the facility would open at 5:30 a.m. and close at midnight for maintenance and other tasks.

Documents filed with the city show the operation would start small with 15 tours daily — that's 15 takeoffs and 15 landings — with potential to expand up to 125 tours daily.

But a company spokesman said the triple-digit figure only represents what's possible at the site, not what's planned.

“In presenting to the city, we had to provide the maximum conceivable numbers for everything ... our plans differ sharply from those numbers," spokesman Eric Herman said.

The facility would include a hangar for as many as 60 helicopters, a terminal with a rooftop observation deck and water taxi dock. CEO Trevor Heffernan has said the company would bring more than 40 jobs and transform the largely industrial stretch into a first-class tourist destination. 

The proposal seemed to be fast-tracked for approval until last month.

In recent weeks, the company's bid has lost the support of Ald. Danny Solis (25th), was yanked from a Plan Commission agenda and been blasted by community groups in Pilsen and the Friends of the Chicago River.

But it also has picked up key endorsements from nearby commercial property owners, and 11th Ward Ald. James Balcer still supports it.

Just this week, Pilsen business group 18th Street Development Corporation and the Redmoon Theater company wrote letters backing the proposal.

Chicago Helicopter Express, meanwhile, took out a big ad in a local newspaper and shot back at the Friends of the Chicago River, calling out one of the group's founding board members, Grant Crowley, an East Side businessman who owns several plots of land near the proposed site.

Crowley has denied any impropriety. Friends of the Chicago River, for its part, said Crowley's role as land owner doesn't affect its stance. The volunteer organization said it still opposes an "inherently noxious use" of the river.

At issue for critics of the proposal are safety and noise.

Federal Aviation Administration records show the company has a clean safety record, with no "records of accidents, incidents or enforcement actions."

Still, the proposed location near the CTA Orange Line tracks, the Dan Ryan and Stevenson expressways and the Halsted Street Bridge, has raised a few eyebrows. 

But the company said its expert pilots would follow flight paths above the Stevenson toward Lake Michigan, avoiding fly time above residential areas.

As for noise, Heffernan has said his company will use the "quietest helicopters in the world," with plans to install a proprietary system that would move the grounded helicopters around the 4.6 acre site without firing up its motors, cutting down on emissions and noise. 

The upcoming meetings are hosted by Balcer, Heffernan and other representatives from Chicago Helicopter Express, along with "certain experts to be there to answer questions about architectural and environmental issues," a spokeswoman for the company said. 

The city's next Plan Commission meeting is scheduled for March 20, but it's unclear whether the proposal will be on the agenda.