Niagara north-south airport battle in the wings

A St. Catharines Flying Club instructor prepares for takeoff from Niagara Central Airport in this 2014 file photo. While Niagara District Airport's commission wants Niagara Region to take control of the Niagara-on-the-Lake facility, consideration should bA St. Catharines Flying Club instructor prepares for takeoff from Niagara Central Airport in this 2014 file photo. While Niagara District Airport's commission wants Niagara Region to take control of the Niagara-on-the-Lake facility, consideration should b

A north-south battle could be in the wings as north Niagara municipalities push to upload their costs and responsibilities for operation of Niagara District Airport onto Niagara Region.

That plan — it would ease the burden on St. Catharines, Niagara-on-the-Lake and Niagara Falls property taxpayers — could stick costs for the NOTL airport with all 12 lower-tier municipalities — including Welland, Pelham, Port Colborne and Wainfleet, whose residents already fund Niagara Central Dorothy Rungeling Airport through their local taxes.

Councils representing the municipalities partnered with the NOTL airport all support Niagara District Airport commission’s desire to move its facility from one for general aviation to one that supports international flights, under regional control of its current annual operating budget of $300,000.

But when the matter moves to regional council chambers for consideration, expect turbulence.

Says Pelham Mayor Augustyn of the north’s proposal, “I put it on Facebook: I’m not supportive of this unless they look at both airports at the same time.”

Right now, the north is giving no consideration to the Pelham-based airport, including what impacts it may incur if a plan to move the NOTL airport toward an international hub, with needed expenditures of an estimated $8 million, moves ahead.

Decisions made about changes to the way the NOTL airport functions will affect the other, Augustyn says.

“They really are part of our transportation niche, so the two have to be looked at in tandem.”

What’s being talked about in the north is independent of any consideration for the municipal airport in the south.

“This, unfortunately, is coming across as the (north) municipalities attempting to upload the funding responsibility to the region,” Augustyn says.

“I don’t know if that’s what they’re trying to do, but that’s how it’s coming across.”

Mike Britton, a St. Catharines city councillor who sits on the Niagara District Airport commission, says that’s not the case.

What is hoped is that there is political will now to act on a proposal put forward as far back as 1993.

“It’s a rare opportunity where we can have a better service for less,” he says, adding the commercial plans if successful will mean none of Niagara’s southern municipalities would find themselves presumingly paying taxes for operation of second airport.

Britton, a Ward 3 St. Catharines councillor, says a 2013 feasibility study for the airport shows the proposal that soon could land in front of regional councillors “could be profitable” — and that’s where he says “differentiation” is made between the NOTL facility and the one in Pelham.

“It’s pretty much a regional airport in everything but name now,” he says of Niagara District.

Investment in the north will bring economic rewards far greater than would investment in the southern airport, he says.

He also suggests an international hub would have no impact on operations now offered at the Taylor Rd. centre.

Still, For Niagara Region not to consider an upload of both airports could be seen as flying in the face of its very own Grow South economic development policy.

The Pelham airport and the one in Niagara’s north both serve numerous commercial enterprises throughout the area.

“Together the two airports have a huge economic impact on the region” — and that doesn’t include the potential for far greater impact with proper investment, says Richard Rybiak, chair of the Niagara Central Dorothy Rungeling Airport commission.

“They are part of the fabric of our landscape, and should not be viewed as just being under the purview of the privileged” who own planes, says Rybiak, a Ward 1 Pelham councillor.

“Both airports together represent a complimentary and self-supporting system,” he says.

It is a desire that Niagara Region also become a funding partner in the southern airport, he says.

“That’s something we’d like to change,” he says.

“The amount of money required is far outweighed by the economic impact — and not the potential impact.”

Regional Chair Alan Caslin was unavailable to comment on this story Friday, but his office did issue a statement attributable to him.

“We will examine all proposals for regional airports that are received by regional council,” Caslin says.

“Once received, all proposals will be studied and assessed with considerations give to regional council’s strategic plan and the transportation master plan which is targeted for completion in 2017.”

No motions have been put forward to Niagara Region from either airport commission.

Rybiak says if the north’s plans take flight, the southern airport will be able to better offer services to private flyers than could be at a less publicly accessible international facility that would require infrastructure for security and screening for outgoing and incoming flights by the Canadian Air Transport Security Authority and Canada Border Services Agency.

The 416-acre Pelham airport, which has a conservatively estimated economic impact to the region of between $5 million and $8 million, has two paved runways (lengths of 3,500 and 2,670 metres) also has water landing access on the Welland River and accommodates glider training and parachuting.

“We are not in competition” with Niagara District Airport, Rybiak says — stressing consideration of Niagara Region operation of both airports is not about “fairness,” but instead the economy.

Both airports, he notes, contribute to economic growth.

Including revenues, the south airport has an annual operating budget of less than $200,000. Its four partnered municipalities contribute about $1 per resident to its operation.

Like the NOTL airport, and many others across the country, development tends to be grounded by lack of money.

“There’s not a lot of it going into reserves, so the infrastructure will not survive on its own,” Rybiak says.

An appeal for donations on the southern airport’s website identifies priority spending areas as runway and apron repairs, a new septic system and historic building repairs.

The southern airport’s tenants include St. Catharines Flying Club, Niagara Skydive Centre and Tarczy Aircraft mechanic services, and, says Rybiak, Accipiter Radar Technologies is building a demonstration hangar. It is also home to 87 Eagle Squadron Air Cadets and COPA Flight 149.

The north says it can’t afford to properly invest its airport; it has potential for building the local economy.

Says the south: Ditto.

“They’re both valid regional facilities you want to look at,” says Welland Mayor Frank Campion.

“You can’t forget us down here.”

So, let the showdown — as a segment of Niagara’s economic community calls for the creation of just one Niagara government — begin.

Niagara’s money-losing airports have always been fodder for political debate.

And be sure — parochialism will again rear its ugly head.

In 2008, Niagara District Airport commission wanted Niagara Region to commit to a $500,000-a-year operating pledge ($1.18 per Niagara resident). It was shelved pending a request for a review of air transportation in Niagara — one that would take into account Niagara Central Airport in the south.

“Niagara District isn’t the end-all and be-all of air infrastructure in Niagara region,” then-Port Colborne mayor Vance Badwey had said in a move that stalled the request that was eventually dropped in the north’s hopes of instead landing funding from higher government.

More on that in a bit.

Right now, things may not look so good for the south airport.

A Jacobs Consultancy report released in August 2009 recommended Niagara Region take the reins of Niagara District Airport — but also specifically said that the upper-tier municipality not control or regularly fund Niagara Central Airport.

However, that report also recommended St. Catharines, Niagara-on-the-Lake and Niagara Falls continue paying a share of operational costs for their airport — something which has not been raised with Niagara District Airport commission’s current proposal.

At the same time the 2009 Jacobs report came out, regional council was then into months of discussion on whether to fork over $3.8 million towards planned $11.4-million renovations to the NOTL facility. The federal and provincial governments promised $7.6 million towards critical security, runway and building improvements — but that money was contingent on the cash-strapped airport finding a municipal funding partner with deeper pockets.

In September 2009, regional council reluctantly agreed to spend $3.8 million on the airport marking its 80th anniversary to ensure the $8 million in Building Canada Fund stimulus cash from Ottawa and Queen’s Park would not be lost.

Augustyn says it was under an understanding Pelham’s airport would be helped in return at some future date.

The money for Niagara District went to security fencing, repaving all runways and taxiways and adding new taxiways to make traffic movement faster and safer. The 1960s-era terminal was also replaced.

That airport’s commission then had hoped the changes — read: if we build it, they will come — would bump up airport revenues toward self-sustainability.

Similar to its hopes under its latest proposal to regional authorities.

This latest move to upload the airport comes just a little more than two years after the three municipal partners in Niagara District Airport signed an operation agreement not to expire until 2026 — and following the loss of the City of Thorold as a partner.

Any change to that agreement involves a yearlong process.

In the meantime, a push for one Niagara government will continue.

 

Source: Fort Erie Times