Business leaders fight plan to close downtown heliport
Plans to decommission and redevelop the Downtown Indianapolis Heliport have hit turbulence as one of the state’s most influential and connected business leaders spearheads an effort to stop the move and potentially buy the site.
The opposition—which has grown to include top business leaders—appears to have the Hogsett administration reconsidering whether eliminating the heliport is the right move for downtown.
Chuck Surack, best known as founder and chairman of Fort Wayne-based instrument retailer Sweetwater, has in recent weeks urged the Federal Aviation Administration to deny the Indianapolis Airport Authority’s request to decommission the heliport.
And Surack, who also owns aviation companies and a 2.5-acre parcel near the heliport, has some big corporate and individual names on his side.
Indianapolis Colts owner Jim Irsay, Lucas Oil founder Forrest Lucas, former Indianapolis Motor Speedway Chairman Tony George, insurance executive Steven Hilbert, Indiana University Health and Republic Airways are among more than 40 individuals and organizations listed on a letter asking the airport authority to keep the heliport open, airport officials confirmed. IBJ has not talked with each of those individuals and organizations.
In addition, Surack said that at his request, former Vice President Mike Pence sent a letter to the FAA opposing the site’s decommissioning and repurposing of the heliport.
Now, city officials—who recently touted the heliport site as a key property in downtown redevelopment efforts—tell IBJ the city is “undertaking its own analysis of the benefits and challenges presented by continued downtown heliport operations, generally.”
IBJ first reported last June 2021 that the airport authority was seeking to close the heliport and was working with the city of Indianapolis to find new uses for the 4.9-acre property at 51 S. New Jersey St. City and airport officials said in late December they hoped to receive tentative federal approval to decommission the facility by the end of February.
While that date has come and gone, the FAA in February did file a notice of plans to close the facility, which opened the matter for public comment, a period that concluded in early March.
The airport authority has argued that business at the heliport has diminished over the years, particularly as local television news stations have abandoned the use of helicopters and the Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department has eliminated much of its aviation-based law enforcement activity.
The city previously has said it would like to make the facility available for redevelopment proposals that could include multifamily, retail or commercial uses.
But Surack—who is a helicopter pilot and owns a helicopter charter service and a helicopter manufacturing company—said he is willing to acquire the property and operate the heliport for use by his own companies and by other private and public users.
“I’ve explained [to city officials] how we could grow the business there if we opened it back up and made it available to the public,” Surack said. “It’s great asset. I’d just hate to see it go away.”
Opponents say keeping the heliport in business is not just about the service it can provide now but more about what it could mean to what the aviation industry calls advance air mobility, which is a term for evolving passenger and cargo transportation technology that includes drones and aircraft that can take off and land vertically.
“Now is not the time to remove infrastructure or hinder progress as other competing cities plan for expansion to support AAM, especially considering the advantage Indianapolis has with the heliport’s close proximity to the recently opened transit center and the millions in federal funding that have been invested in both facilities over the recent years,” said the letter signed by 41 individuals and companies.
The airport authority confirmed Thursday that it had received the letter and forwarded it to the FAA. Surack provided IBJ a copy of Pence’s letter, but IBJ is not quoting from it until the former vice president’s staff confirms it.
The FAA did not return an email requesting comment on Wednesday, nor did an employee with the FAA return a call requesting comment.
But Surack said he has met with Mayor Joe Hogsett and officials in his administration to urge them to rethink those plans.
“We’ve heard from a number of stakeholders, including Mr. Surack, and their feedback influenced our approach,” the city said in its statement Thursday. “We recognize this is an important issue to many people.”
The airport conducted its own analysis in 2021. On Thursday, the airport authority said, “We appreciate the city’s thoughtful approach on the future of the downtown heliport site. Currently, we await FAA’s analysis and determination.”
In a separate statement to IBJ, airport officials say they have had informal conversations with Surack about the heliport. However, the authority said it has “had no conversations related to his acquiring or operating the heliport as a private entity.”
Surack has made other moves to try to protect the heliport. Last year, one of his companies, Sweet Real Estate LLC, spent $8.2 million to buy the 2.5-acre property at 603 E. Washington St., the former Adult & Child Services headquarters. The site sits directly north of the heliport’s landing pad.
Surack said he made the move in part to reduce the opportunities for redeveloping the heliport site.
“Together, they would have been more valuable to a developer,” Surack said.
“I’m not going to sell it. Therefore, there’s only five acres at the heliport that can be developed. And the idea that [a developer is] going to build apartments there—it’s not very favorable for potential [renters] to live there,” he said, noting that CSX railroad tracks run along the southern edge of the heliport property.
The heliport’s last remaining permanent tenant, Indiana University Health, has generally been opposed to the closure of the property, and is still exploring alternative sites for its LifeLine operations.
Even without a strong stable of permanent users, the heliport does see peaks in activity, Surack said.
The businessman’s own aviation charter company—Sweet Helicopters—and others use the property to transport business and government leaders across Indiana, as well as bring spectators in for major sporting events, including Pacers and Colts games and the Indianapolis 500.
“It’s vital to our business to be able to land in downtown Indianapolis,” Surack said, adding that at least 350 people use chartered helicopters to attend the Indianapolis 500 each year.”
Without the downtown heliport, those charters must land at regional airports.
“I’m never going to get rich [by buying it]—I’ve already made my money—but it’s not going to lose money over time,” Surack told IBJ. “I intend to invest in it and make it better for everybody, that would be my goal.”