The Gary/Chicago International Airport will soon fully live up to its moniker.
In August, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security approved a design plan for an on-site General Aviation Customs and Border Patrol facility, pushing the building one step closer to completion by mid-summer.
While international travelers can depart from Gary, they can only land there after clearing customs at another airport.
"Now, we're living that name and it means something," said Stephen Mays, chairman of the Airport Authority.
The design approval and ongoing construction top the airport's 2017 highlights, with recent data suggesting it's on an upward trajectory.
The airport saw a nearly 12 percent increase in operations compared to 2016, airport officials said. Data isn't complete yet, but landing fees also exceeded the 2016 total, along with fuel flowage.
While general aviation fortunes are blossoming, airport officials still hope to attract a commercial airline.
"We're doing everything to make that courting easy," said Mays. "Airlines need to be able to clear customs — it makes us more attractive now."
The Gary Jet Center and B. Coleman Aviation, the airport's two fixed-based operators who serve the needs of business and private aviation travelers, both completed significant projects.
In October, the Jet Center opened its new $3 million 8,300-square-foot Corporate Flight Center, a terminal south of the airport's administration building. It still maintains its headquarters on the airport's east side.
A glass-walled lobby, that includes an espresso bar, contains 45 seats with a view of the airport's new runway, completed in 2015. The building offers three crew lounges, pilot sleeping rooms, a crew kitchen and laundry, conference room, and TV rooms.
It's attached to an environmentally friendly LEED-certified hangar that opened in 2014. Jet Center officials have applied for the LEED certification for the flight center, as well.
"It allows us to expand our reach and continue to pull more of our Chicago market, Jet Center President Lynn Eplawy said of the new terminal. The Jet Center has about 60 employees.
Earlier in 2017, the Boeing Corp. named the Jet Center as its supplier of the year.
Meanwhile in November, B. Coleman's new $5 million, 40,000-square-foot hangar opened and it announced a seven-year expansion plan that could bring three new hangars with an investment up to $20 million. The company has about 30 employees.
The new hangar can house four large-cabin aircraft, plus eight midsize planes.
B. Coleman President John Girzadas said he's optimistic about the future since the expanded runway opened. "We're seeing growth in private aviation. This is close to Chicago and it's crowded at Midway. Fuel is cheaper. People are starting to realize this is a true option."
He said he expects more growth once the new customs facility opens. "I think it will be really big," he said.
The customs facility is being constructed inside an existing brick building, located just west of the airport terminal. Part of the building is used for Gary Fire Department rescue and fire operations.
Improvements around the airport in 2017 include the removal of the old railroad bridge over Airport Road. "That makes for easier access to the airport," said Mays. "There's new landscaping and the building across from the administration center was torn down. It looks like a third major airport."
Mays said the airport is focusing on general aviation, cargo and commercial flights.
"People now are looking at the Gary/Chicago airport as a viable entity to do business. We're excited about 2018," said Mays.