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Huronia Airport talks take off with consultant's report

A need to improve internet service, increasing charter flights, attracting tourism and flights schools were among recommendations made by the consultant

Huronia Airport's tri-party owners pored over the various options presented by a consultant to keep the asset viable.

Trent Gervais, president and CEO of Loomex Group, which was hired to prepare a detailed report around the aviation property, talked Monday evening to the three municipalities that own the 300-acre piece of property in Tiny Township.

He said the airport has some crucial positive features, such as room to grow, an approximately 4,000 foot runway that can accommodate small charters, commercial and larger general aviation aircrafts, proximity to cottage country, and low tax, utilities, and fuel costs.

Some downsides, as Gervais pointed out, include weak internet access, outdated machinery and equipment, outdated fuel system and lack of a flight school. 

In the report, he lists a number of ways the airport can be revived as a revenue-generating asset for the area.

Increasing communications on various channels can not only bring in tourism and visitors, but also attract a flight school, and open up the space to events. Additional hangar spaces can be added and some of the airport building space can be leased out to other businesses.

Another suggestion was to strike a partnership with Tay Township, which is the only North Simcoe municipality currently not sharing in the ownership of the airport.

When the floor was opened for questions, Midland's Coun. Jon Main was the first to jump in with a query.

"How have you seen the airport industry change in the pandemic and are we close to seeing it return to normal?" he asked.

Gervais said it's no secret that COVID-19 has decimated the aviation industry.

"Airports hurting the most are those that rely heavily on schedule service," he said, adding some airports have lost 90% of their business.
Despite that, it’s still going fairly strong, said Gervais.

"We also think it’s a great opportunity that when the general population gets out and moves around, it’s going to take them time to build up the trust to travel abroad," he said. "Domestic travel is a great asset. What can your airport do to attract that potential business to the area?"

Tiny Township Coun. Tony Mintoff said despite the challenges and the hardships COVID-19 has created in every other area of life, the airport's movements were up by 17% over 2019.

"Our fuel sales are up 60% over last year," he said.

Main asked about another use for the airport.

"We have all these extreme weather events that are potentially going to be affecting us, so are the airport's emergency capabilities would be fantastic to be further explored?" he said.

Gervais said that could work.

"Your airport could be equipped to assist with emergency management," he said. "It could be a small evacuation shelter. It could be a small transportation hub. It could play another role. It's just an asset sitting there." 

Penetanguishene councillor George Vadeboncoeur wanted to know if the tri-party municipal agreement would be reviewed.

Jeff Lees, chief administrative officer for Penetanguishene, said that was one of the suggestions made by Loomex and agreed upon by the three CAOs.

Midland's Coun. Bill Gordon wanted to know more about the suggestion around hosting events on the airport property.

"I've heard that a couple times now, and as I recall there were at least two events that were proposed and denied," he said. "Has there's been a shift in the mentality now?"

Gervais clarified the types of events the report was suggesting.

"What we are really encouraging is that the events should be aviation and aerospace related," he said. "They're the types of events we would encourage you to attract to the airport." 

Mintoff, who is part of the Huronia Airport Commission, added to that.

"We've had two significant proposals brought to us," he said. "One was for a concert-type venue. We worked with the proponent, but what happened was that they were asking us to undertake all the liabilities and responsibilities, without any commitment to revenue from that opportunity. 

"The second opportunity was to host drag races on the airport runway," continued Mintoff. "We worked very much with the proponent to make sure we had the appropriate insurance policies, but found out that these events can create significant damage to the runways. The amount of money we were being offered wouldn't have cleaned it up." 

The commission, he said, understands the desire of the three host municipalities to generate revenue to offset the deficit.

"We feel we have to have the right things that will generate reasonable revenue without exposing municipalities to the liabilities," Mintoff said.

Gordon then asked about the airport competing with the Lake Simcoe Regional Airport in Oro-Medonte.

"The Lake Simcoe (Regional) Airport is in significant growth mode and it's proven so likely to produce income," he said. "Are we really wise to be competing against our own upper tier of government when our collective tax dollars are promoting their growth?"

Gervais said there's plenty of room in the airspace for all the airports.

"The Lake Simcoe Regional Airport sits as part of the Southern Ontario Airport Network," he said. "Each one of those airports is defined around the type of business they're in. Although Simcoe won't turn away general aviation traffic, that's not what they're promoting. They're out there promoting the big jet traffic. 

"Those that are travelling to North Simcoe are going to want to land in North Simcoe," added Gervais. 

Gordon then asked about divestment.

"Why did we choose not to look at divestment as an option?"

Gervais said that wasn't part of the mandate.

However, the report does include a section about divestiture. 

Small- and medium-sized municipalities may look at selling off airports with aging infrastructures, but there are many advantages and disadvantages to consider, says the report.

Selling may be difficult negotiate considering the agreements already in place with hangar owners. Private investors may not want to invest back in the airport.

"Another challenge with a private airport structure is managing noise and other environmental externalities generated by airports," says the report. "Seldom, costs of noise pollution are included in the profit and loss sheet of a private airport. Often, politicians spend tax dollars to cover the costs of noise mitigation; this would remain a burden on the municipality, regardless of ownership structure, in order to calm neighbouring voters/taxpayers."

As well, the Loomex report says, selling the airport to a private owner would take away municipal control over the activities at the airfield.

Midland's Mayor Stewart Strathearn spoke up against divestiture.

"If you divest totally of the airport, you'll never get it back," he said. 

He then asked about the runway capacity to allow larger planes to land.

"We have a 4,000-foot runaway, can it accommodate a Dash-8? What would the range of an aircraft like that be?" he said. "If we're talking about a more focused marketing plan, tied into something like cruise ships, then you start to have people who are deposited in our area and may need to go back to, for example, Chicago." 

Gervais said the strip is equipped for a Dash-8 to land on it.

"We'd have to look at what size, but a Dash-8 300, would have 50 to 70 passengers," he added. 

Strathearn also wanted to know how the Huronia Airport would stand apart from all the other airpotrs in the region that already offer flight school.

Gervais' advice was to look for the niche.

"There are a lot of international pilots that could be attracted," he said. "Could it be an ultra light flight school? There are a lot of unmanned aircrafts that are reaching potential. I wouldn't suggest attracting just another flight school, but what niche market can you get into that nobody else is doing?"

Strathearn then asked about funding.

"If this airport were to attract a charter services, what would it do to its status in the hierarchy of airports?" he said. "Would we be eligible for significant federal funding as a consequence?"

Gervais said the airport would have to reach a certain threshold for regularly scheduled service for that.

"The better you can collaborate as a region and have a solid business plan, the more inclined you are to be able to get some federal and provincial funding," he said.

Tim Leitch, Tiny Township's acting CAO and director of public works, explained next steps.

"Moving forward on this, we felt that one of the main things to get us going would be a task force made up of three staff members from the ownership groups, an aviation expert, the airport manager, and representation from our councils," he said. "We want to develop a road map for how we're going to move forward to make sure the airport is a sustainable business."

The task force, said Leitch, will bring back a report to respective councils to create a consistent plan of action moving forward.