The Gary Air Show could be grounded this summer because it lacks sponsors to support the pricey $350,000 two-day flight festival, Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson said.
Freeman-Wilson said the city is in talks with a possible sponsor, but it's likely the show won't take place this year. It had been planned for July 8-9 at Marquette Park beach in the city's Miller section. She said Monday is the deadline to notify this year's headliner, the U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds, of the show's status.
Freeman-Wilson said the city couldn't raise enough sponsorship money to cover the air show that's been a summer fixture for thousands of spectators since 2000.
Over the years, it's been a struggle to find ways to make money off the air show that draws thousands to the lakefront. An official from the South Shore Visitors and Convention Authority, which produced the show until 2015, estimated it lost $1.4 million during its nine-year run with the show.
"While we all agree it's a great event, we can't justify what we don't have," Freeman-Wilson said of the lack of revenue. It costs the city about $50,000 in police, fire, sanitation and other city services. She said the city was counting on sponsors to supply the rest of the expenses.
"They're ready to go," she said of the acts lined up. "It's very disappointing."
Freeman-Wilson said the city is now considering hosting the air show every other year so it can spend more time raising money.
That idea appealed to George Rogge, who serves as president of the Miller Business Association and the Miller Citizens Corp.
"The air show takes a lot of work and a lot money. This would relieve you of the stress of coming up with sponsorship money continuously," he said. "Some people I know have said they go away when the air show comes because it's the same thing every year and it starts to get old."
Speros Batistatos, president and CEO of the South Shore Convention and Visitors Authority, said Wednesday the tourism bureau applauds Gary's efforts the past couple years to resurrect the air show in Gary.
He said it is likely the city in organizing the event has run up against some of the same challenges the South Shore CVA did. Raising money for an event of that nature is difficult. The large amount of open space also makes it hard to generate revenue.
"At the end of the day it is just too high a revenue for too low a return," he said. Batistatos said Freeman-Wilson has done a fine job with the event and the South Shore CVA will continue to support the city in its efforts to host events that draw visitors to Northwest Indiana.
In 2015, the city took over the operation of the show from the South Shore Convention and Visitors Authority, which started sponsoring it in 2006 when the city plunged into a financial crisis.
Former mayor Scott King launched the air show in 2000 after the Gary/Chicago International Airport became the staging area for performers in the Chicago Air & Water Show in 1997. Chicago organizer Rudy Malnati also coordinated Gary's show.
The air show was sidelined by the federal sequestration in 2013. In 2014, the visitors authority planned to move the show to Fair Oaks Farms in Newton County, but heavy rains made the fields that were to be used for parking unusable and the show was canceled.
Last year, Majestic Star Casino contributed $125,000 as the show's main sponsor. Freeman-Wilson said that initial contribution opened the door to more donations.
Freeman-Wilson said the city's resources have been diminished after losing a property tax assessment appeal to Majestic Star two years ago. The city had to refund $5.2 million to the casino after a judge ruled the casino's value was much less than its assessed value. The ruling also cost the city millions in tax dollars.
Since she's been mayor, Freeman-Wilson said, the casino's tax contribution has decreased from about $20 million to $14 million annually.