BRIDGEPORT — In front of a crowd that seemed equally skeptical and supportive, the leader of a helicopter tour company sought to sell residents on his plan to transform industrial plot of land into a heliport he said would become a bustling hub for Chicago tourism.
"The end result is a huge economic win," said Trevor Heffernan, CEO of Chicago Helicopter Express, the tour company looking to move its operation from the north suburbs to the south branch of the Chicago River at 24th and Halsted streets in Bridgeport.
The company's proposal includes the creation of 14 pads for launching and landing the company's tour helicopters, along with a two-story terminal that would house interactive displays about Chicago architecture, and indoor cafe and a grassy rooftop observation deck.
Also included in the proposed 4.6 acre site are a helicopter hangar and a public boat dock that would double as a Bridgeport stop on the Chicago Water Taxi route.
Throughout the more than two-hour meeting at the St. Barbara church hall on Tuesday, Heffernan sought to clarify some of the plans laid out in public documents he presented to the city.
The company, for example, wouldn't launch helicopters one-by-one in staggered liftoffs throughout the day. Instead, it would launch its helicopters at the same time, which he said would boost efficiency and cut down on noise during its daily operations.
If the latter sounds improbable, Heffernan and handpicked helicopter consultant and aviation editor Kevin Nelson presented sound decibel data showing its helicopter noise would be quieter than the ambient noise caused by the nearby CTA Orange Line, CTA buses and Stevenson and Dan Ryan expressways.
"Your community is loud already ... [The helicopter noise] will be masked by the noise you already hear," Nelson said, adding "If you don't see the helicopter, chances are you're not going to hear it."
Still, many in the crowd were skeptical about the noise.
Rosario Scalise, who helps run a construction company just north of the proposed heliport site, asked why the company wants to erect sound barrier walls "if there's no noise."
Like many in the crowd, he wanted a truer sense of the noise levels, even offering to make his parking lot a makeshift helipad for a test run.
"Maybe I'll bring the coffee and doughnuts," he said.
Federal rules prohibit such test runs, but Heffernan offered to bus Bridgeport residents to Chicago Helicopter Express's Wheeling hangar to watch the operation first-hand, and he has touted his helicopter fleet as the "quietest in the world."
Heffernan said Bridgeport wasn't the company's first choice — he looked to places like Navy Pier and Northerly Island first — but said the location, tucked along the south bank of the Chicago River's South Branch, has actually proved ideal.
For one, the South Side facility would give helicopters a clear shot toward the lake using a flight path high above the Stevenson Expressway, which would prevent it from flying over residential areas.
"We never at any point would fly over any homes or businesses," Heffernan said.
And the proposed location, which already has the backing of every agency from Ald. James Balcer's 11th Ward office all the way up to the Federal Aviation Administration, is easily accessible for the company's Downtown shuttle buses.
The proposal is expected to go before the city's planning commission next month, a move that would disappoint some of the residents and activists who said they needed more time to review the company's plans and supporting documents like environmental impact studies.
Others wanted more assurances that businesses would benefit from the project.
Heffernan said that's already part of the plan.
The terminal would contain maps displaying the neighborhood's best shopping and dining attractions, and there are plans to offer discounts to patrons of local businesses.
Also planned is a local job fair — the company said it will hire upward of 50 people — and educational tours that would bring neighborhood kids to the terminal for lessons on the math and science of aviation.
In recent weeks, some residents and business groups have thrown their support behind the heliport, saying the attraction would boost tourism and bring money to the neighborhood. Bar owner and nonprofit director Ed Marszewski called it "almost like a miracle" that Bridgeport's getting looked at in the first place.
"When I first read about this ... I thought 'No way there's going to be a heliport in Bridgeport. Who in their right mind would do something like that? ... But to have one open up in the neighborhood to provide a major tourist attraction, to provide any kind of story they can tell [about] our neighborhood, to me ... it's great," he said.
Opponents, including the architects of the "Stop the Halsted Heliport" online campaign, say the facility would be a noisy and unnecessary intrusion, particularly because construction for a similar development — the planned "vertiport" for executives and medical aircraft in the Illinois Medical District — is set to begin.
Others were unhappy about what they called a "disingenuous" approach by Chicago Helicopter Express to win over the neighborhood.
Tuesday's forum was the company's first large community meeting and it was held only after the city's planning commission yanked the proposal from its agenda last month.
"Everything just sounds so idealistic," Bridgeport resident Jenica Lee said.
Chicago Helicopter Express is hosting another meeting Wednesday at Pilsen's La Catrina Cafe, 1011 W. 18th St. The meeting is scheduled to start at 6:30 p.m.