— By Serena Lapointe, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Whitecourt Press
In 2014, Woodlands County undertook an Airport Master Plan. In 2020, the plan was updated. It focused on a socioeconomic analysis of the airport facility, airport development opportunities, stormwater management, fixed vs. rotary-wing conflicts, ownership options, airport approach lands, certification review, and marketing plans. Upon completion in 2020, the updated file was presented to the Airport Advisory Committee, which requested to have a few other items reviewed, resulting in a supplement to the plan.
“When the Airport Master Plan review (was undertaken), a number of stakeholders were interviewed, including tenants at the airport, local governments, and users of the airport. They put all the information together,” said Andre Bachand, Director of Infrastructure. “The airport contributes to 173 full-time equivalent jobs and a GDP of about 13.5 million.”
On the topic of marketing, several ideas were tossed around. “We have undertaken, through Administration, a couple of items such as the 2023 COPA and things like the Reno (Formular 1 Air Racing). We are advertising in some aviation magazines and are trying to get the word out. In 2022, the airport should have its own website linked to the Woodlands County website. We’ll also reach out to our partners to get a link on their websites,” said Bachand.
“For some on the committee prior, there was transportation at the local airport. In 2019 the operator lost the contract for air ambulance, which subsidized their passenger flights. They reduced their number of flights, stopped flying, and then COVID hit, and the airport numbers went down totally. There was some interest just before COVID of another company taking over but since COVID that had not produced anything,” explained Bachand.
During his presentation, Bachand mentioned the topic of a commission for the airport structure. Committee member Rob Magee asked if changing the airport’s operation would change the funding model.
Bachand said, “we are looking at equal partnerships at the airport. That would change the funding, and that would change the full ownership of CYZU (airport code).” Magee then asked, “that’s a fairly significant change, right?” To which Bachand said, “it is. More to come.”
Committee Chair Councillor Alan Deane said that back when the Airport Master Plan first came out, one of the top priorities was lands to be developed. “People wanted to be able to purchase lots to build hangars etc., and potentially have business opportunities out of there. The other one was to have some sort of card lock fuel system. It’s 2021, and that’s still in the works, is it?”
Bachand said yes, “that’s still in the works. A couple of issues are holding it back, but hopefully, we are getting to the point where we can go out for proposals on getting fuel back at the airport. It would be essentially a credit card operated self-serve.” Deane asked if Bachand felt the card lock fuel system would be something the committee would get to look at in 2022.
“I would say definitely sometime in 2022. I should also point out since you mentioned ownership of the lands at the airport, one of the things identified in the Master Plan update was not selling land within the airport. Selling land, you lose control of your airport. That’s one of the recommendations,” explained Bachand.
Deane asked if it was standard practice, at similarly-sized airports, to lease rather than sell lots. “The bulk of airports lease land. There are some that do have private property, but there’s not a lot of them. I know there is one airport in southern Alberta that the municipality sold it to an interested party, and they are looking at selling lots off, but generally, they are leased.”
Member Curtis Brownlee, a pilot who also has a hangar at the airport, said it was necessary to identify what Administration was looking for to decide if they should lease or sell. “If you’re looking for private, you’re not going to get a lot of guys that are going to be able to afford to lease and stand a hangar as opposed to buy and stand a hangar. If you’re looking purely to go industrial, lease is the way to go. If you don’t put a fair mix in there when one suffers, so does the other,” he explained.
Deane asked Administration if stakeholders were engaged in going from sale to lease. “I don’t know if that was one of the questions they asked. That was just something the consultant observed,” replied Bachand. “Currently, there are some lots available for lease. There are private vacant lots. I know one lot just sold in a private deal.” For the County to take control of any private lots, they would need to purchase them from the current owners. “I think there are six or seven private lots. I believe there’s a possibility of up to eight lots that can be leased. The last subdivision built by the County, we did not specify or survey out the lots. It was left the way it is so that if we have somebody come in and want a three-acre lot, or a one-acre lot, we can do that (for lease).”
Brownlee provided context on the pricing. “When they sold those lots, they were $30,000 and the one that just sold, because you can’t buy anymore land out there, sold for about $180,000. Nobody wants to lease land. How do you go to a bank as a private individual and say, I want to stand a hangar? The bank will laugh at you because you don’t own the land.”
Magee added that some of the privately owned properties are hangarless. “So, we sold them, and nobody built anything except for two people. Maybe a caveat should be put in there that you have to build within two years.” Deane said that the conversation on lease versus sale would be discussed at greater length at a future meeting, as would the lease rates.