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Georgian Bluffs expected to 'pick a lane' soon for its airport

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Georgian Bluffs officials are expected to soon choose what direction they plans to go with the Wiarton-Keppel International Airport.

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A report is scheduled to come to Georgian Bluffs council in September that will outline its options for the airport.

At a committee of the whole meeting on Wednesday, Georgian Bluffs chief administrative officer Al Meneses gave council a verbal update on discussions with potential partners for the operation and development of the facility, when he said he expects council to “pick a lane” for the facility it has owned and operated alone since 2015.

“I think status quo is certainly not an option,” Meneses said at Wednesday’s meeting. “I think expecting to sit back and wait for someone to come knock on our door and say, ‘Hey, we have heard of all this potential and we want to get in on this,’ isn’t something that we want to do.”

Meneses said he expects council to decide if it will put the airport up for sale and try to sell it and if it can’t shut it down, or they are going to give staff a specified time to get a deal done to find a developer to develop the airport lands, take over the airport or “whatever that looks like.”

“I think this council is demanding a decision be made before this fall saying, ‘here is the road we are going to take. Now staff, you have your marching orders. Go out and get it done,’” Meneses said.

Last month, both Georgian Bluffs council and Grey County council received a feasibility study on the airport from the Loomex Group, which recommended that Georgian Bluffs partner with one or both of the upper-tier municipalities, and private businesses to develop the airport property.

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Loomex labelled the plan the “Grey-Bruce Prosperity Hub,” with the vision that the township partner with Grey or Bruce, or both, to keep the struggling airport online while work is done to develop the 815 acres of land into an aviation and non-aviation industry hub.

But commitments from such potential partners have so far been minimal. Grey County put $10,000 toward the feasibility study for the airport, but at its June 24 meeting, that council removed a financial commitment recommended by staff to help with the operations of the airport over the next two years. In the meantime, work would be done to find private sector help to operate and develop the airport. Grey County councillors also wanted Bruce County and South Bruce Peninsula involved more in the process, and to get a better idea of their level of support. Grey County has deferred the matter, and a date had not yet been set for its return to council.

Georgian Bluffs councillors also wanted to know more about Bruce County’s level of support.

Meneses said Wednesday that he had preliminary discussions with South Bruce Peninsula CAO Bill Jones about specific options and that municipality’s desire to be involved.

Grey County staff have also had discussions with Bruce County staff, and there “seems to be support for the continuation of the airport being open,” he said.

To date he has not had a “flat out no” from Bruce County on financial support, Meneses said, but has been told that Georgian Bluffs has to make a decision about the future of the airport itself before coming to ask for such a commitment.

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Meneses said both county officials and the private sector want to make sure Georgian Bluffs is supportive of keeping the airport open and operational before they consider investing in it.

Coun. Ryan Thompson said he was concerned that he was hearing the same things they have been hearing from potential partners for years.

He said in his opinion, the message to those potential partners is that the municipality is behind the airport “until we can hand it to somebody else, period.”

Thompson said they are a small municipality and financially they can’t afford to operate the airport and subsidize it for “potential” partners.

“I just think we are getting near the point where we have to make a tough decision and say, ‘in’ or ‘out,’” Thompson said. “I don’t see people lining up to say we are in this with you or we want to take this over.

“I know my tone is negative, but I just feel like we continue to get platitudes and pats on the head.”

Georgian Bluffs took over sole ownership of the airport in 2015 when it purchased South Bruce Peninsula’s 50 per cent stake for $600,000. Since then, it has run annual deficits in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. At budget time the projected deficit for 2021 was another $388,500.

Thompson said the message to others who ask what they have done or if they are behind it need to just look at that commitment.

“We launched into this to secure single ownership to try to keep this going,” Thompson said. “At the time we knew we couldn’t run this, but we knew it was something that was critical for our community and we would try to keep it going.”

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Meneses said he is hoping that the report in September will not only provide options for council, but will also have some “assurances” about where the support from those other potential partners is and what it means for the municipality.

Meneses asked that council consider two aspects about the facility as they prepare for the report in September and in making their decisions.

He asked that they look at the work they have done to maintain and generate revenue through the operation of the airport and then also look at the lands that could be developed as employment lands and what they have done to try to move that forward. He said Grey County has identified the airport lands as one of the top economic development opportunities in the county.

“I see this as a sort of two-pronged issue here,” said Meneses. “One is the continued operations and the operating deficit of that airport, and the second one is really that golden nugget . . . those development opportunities and those two industrial parks that can be created as part of that prosperity hub and what that would mean not only to Georgian Bluffs but to the overall region.”

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