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Council begins process to sell Owen Sound airport

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The days of Owen Sound owning a municipal airport could be numbered.

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City council voted 5-2 Monday to approve a staff recommendation to begin a six-step process to declare surplus and divest/sell the Owen Sound Billy Bishop Regional Airport, with the hope the new owner will continue operating it as an airport.

They also set a deadline – Dec. 31, 2022 – to either complete the sale or cease operating the airport if a buyer isn’t found by then.

Councillors who supported the motion cited as reasons the annual $235,000 net cost to operate the facility and the fact the airport is not accessible to or used by most Owen Sound residents.

“I think that the taxpayers of Owen Sound have got to stop subsidizing a facility from which they gain so little,” said Coun. Richard Thomas.

“The dream of economic development accompanying the airport from 29 years ago has just never materialized, in my opinion.”

Coun. John Tamming said the city’s cost to subsidize the airport is equivalent to the entire property tax bills paid by 60 homeowners. But it’s not an essential facility that benefits all, he said, noting most people will visit the airport only a couple times annually, if that.

“I don’t want to turn it into a class issue, but by definition, people who fly out of an airport do have some surplus funds and I don’t know why – to use my hypothetical example of a 68-year-old pensioner – why her taxes should go to subsidize those pastimes,” he said.

Coun. Carol Merton – who, along with Coun. Marion Koepke, opposed the motion – said while city staff has stated the airport should no longer be a city business, she thinks operating the facility is a “human business.”

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Council, she said, received letters from two Grey Bruce Health Services’ physicians about the airport’s role in ensuring trauma patients can be transferred as quickly as possible to a more suitable hospital when an ORNGE helicopter cannot land at the Owen Sound hospital. Air ambulances can also use the airport for medical evacuations, while organ donation teams use the facility when needed, the doctors wrote.

Merton said the city also hasn’t addressed the airport’s role in emergency management planning.

“I’d like to pose the question: is the airport nice to have or do we need to have it? Sometimes it’s more than dollars and cents and it is about human lives,” she said.

Council’s motion directs staff to provide notice and invite public comments on the city’s intention to declare surplus and dispose of the airport through direct sale or real estate listing.

City manager Tim Simmonds said the vote doesn’t mean the airport will be put up for sale immediately.

“Between now and this fall, staff will be undertaking a land appraisal, which will take into account the total site and buildings located there. A notice for all public input will be sent from the clerk’s office and all comments will be aggregated and brought back to council in a staff report this fall. That report will seek council’s direction to either proceed to the next step of the sale of the airport, through the creation of a bylaw, or perhaps move in a different direction,” he said.

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A report to council from Simmonds said staff’s recommendations come after the $35 landing fee for small aircraft – launched in winter – failed to generate revenue to offset the facility’s annual net operating costs, which have climbed from about $100,000 in 2010.

Council had directed staff, he said, to look at opportunities to reduce or eliminate that cost.

Ideas presented by hangar owners would only reduce it by about $30,000, he said.

While the goal is for municipal airports to be revenue-neutral, he said the Owen Sound facility would be considered “financially sustainable” if the annual net operating cost dropped to $100,000-$125,000.

Simmonds said capital repair and replacement costs for the airport will exceed $1.5 million within two to five years.

“Going through my first city budget cycle this past year, it was clear that the city’s operation of an airport is, quite honestly, it’s not a city business,” he told council.

“Through the budget process, the city has documented a $30-million city-wide capital infrastructure gap. This doesn’t include major operating contracts coming forward in the next 24 months – that being waste collection and transit. Therefore, this special-purpose infrastructure would be much better served as a private operation and perhaps best owned and operated by individuals, such as the hangar owners, as they have a wealth of experience with airport operations.”

Simmonds said the airport’s location in Meaford, which receives the property tax revenue for the facility, and development criteria for the property, which is within Niagara Escarpment Commission jurisdiction, also creates challenges for manufacturing or commercial development at the airport.

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Prior to the meeting, council received a letter from Dr. Sunil Mehta, the Owen Sound hospital’s chief of emergency medicine and Southwest Region Base Hospital Program’s medical director for Grey and Bruce EMS.

He said fairly regularly, Owen Sound hospital staff determine that patients should be transferred to a more suitable facility, often for time-sensitive treatment. The hospital tries to transfer the patient via ORNGE helicopter, but sometimes – especially during inclement weather – the only alternative to a three-hour, one-way land transfer is a fixed-wing transport out of the Owen Sound airport.

A nurse and/or physician must leave the hospital with the patient for the duration of any land transfer. That time is about 30 minutes if the Owen Sound airport is used, but increases to 60 minutes if the patient must fly out of Wiarton, he said.

“Given the potential impact on care when minutes can matter, I believe it behoves us to maintain service closer to home. Our community deserves access to this facility,” he wrote.

Dr. Jon Caufeild, GBHS’ division chief of general surgery and part-owner of an airport hangar, said in a letter that the extra time to transfer a patient to the Wiarton-Keppel airport if ORNGE is unable to land at the Owen Sound hospital “could mean the difference between life and death” in certain cases.

Tamming said the doctors’ letters contain no data or analysis, only statements that occasionally the airport is useful for emergency transfers.

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“I can’t put a lot of weight on the medical side of keeping the airport in the absence of data,” he said.

Letters from hangar owners and airport users were also read aloud.

One said closing the airport would be a breach of a 40-year lease the writer signed with the city for the land his hangar was built on. The city must expect “massive lawsuits” with the 23 hangar owners “that were assured our investments were secure until 2046 and beyond,” it said.

Council didn’t address that legal question in open session.

Council was asked in another letter if it would consider undertaking an economic impact study on the indirect community loss of closing the facility and what impact closing the airport would have on the time to evacuate or get help into the community during a major disaster.

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