Future of Wingham airport on the table at special North Huron council meeting

·5 min read

WINGHAM – North Huron Council discussed the Richard W. LeVan airport in Wingham at length in a special council meeting held at Town Hall on Oct. 22.

The future of the airport in Wingham was one of the topics of discussion and the decision to prepare for the eventual sale of the property was made.

Director of Public Works, Jamie McCarthy, presented several options to North Huron council in a report, in conjunction with a recent recommendation in the Service Delivery Review Report prepared by KPMG, dated September 2020.

Options that were presented to council by McCarthy were as follows:

• Continue operation of the airport without fueling services. Fuel services are available in the area through other airports such as Goderich, Hanover, Kincardine, and Owen Sound. It is important to note this option is problematic for the Air Cadet Corp operation as well as Apex Helicopters.

• Lease or purchase a card lock fueling system to permit a return to previous operating strategy. The estimated cost for the updated fuel system, including card lock, is $125,000, and this includes installation and contingency. Purchase and lease options are also available. It is suggested that while a card lock system is convenient to users that have relied on fuel availability in the past, such an investment does not encourage growth or increased usage of the airport and represents an additional cost to North Huron ratepayers with little return on investment.

• Develop a long-term plan to actively build the airport. This option requires an initial investment for consulting and engineering services and should include plans to develop and market additional hanger properties. It should also include how to actively market the site and invest in all facets of the operation. Future considerations associated with this approach include additional staffing, after-hours on-call commitment, ongoing training, annual inspections and certification, and a commitment to invest now to meet long-term capital needs of the facility. This option does not provide an immediate return and may place the airport in a competitive position against neighbouring airports.

• Look for partnership opportunities for the operation of the airport. This could include arrangements with specific organizations who own their own fuel storage and, subsequently, assume responsibility for it. A slightly different but similar approach is entering into an agreement whereby a third party that operates the airport in its entirety. Regardless of either approach, this may require some negotiation with Morris-Turnberry to permit additional uses on the site.

• Divest of the asset. This would involve the severance and sale of the airport to an entity interested in operating a private airport facility.

• Sell the agricultural and natural environment lands. At face value, this would constitute an immediate source of cash flow revenue; however, the full long-term cost of operating the airport and capital improvements would be entirely borne by North Huron ratepayers. For this reason, it is operationally prudent to only consider this option after divesting of the Airport Facility.

• Sell the agricultural and natural environment lands and reduce the site to a Heliport only. This option allows the continuation of ORNG services and may or may not meet the needs and requirements of APEX.

The report from KPMG recommended that council explore the potential closure of the airport.

The operation and ownership of this facility could be categorized as a discretionary service, whereas there is no requirement to provide this service, and many municipalities of similar size do not provide this service.

Based on information shared during the course of the review, the facility is in relatively good shape, including an investment in the runway less than 20 years ago, but mainly serves a limited population within the municipality and abroad.

While the overall impact on the municipal levy appears to be minimal, the township may want to decide whether or not this is an asset that it will choose to invest in or divest itself of the future liability in the capital needs associated with the operation of an aero dome.

The airport is owned and operated by North Huron but is situated on land in the Township of Morris-Turnberry, which ultimately affects any decision made by council.

The airport opened in 1996 with a 4,000’ x 75’ paved runway. Located just east of Wingham on Highway 86, the facility includes meeting rooms and a pilot’s lounge, the township website said.

The future costs associated with the eventual need to replace the runway would be high. That amount would fluctuate depending on the price of asphalt at the time, McCarthy said.

ORNG (formerly Ontario Air Ambulance) uses the helipad at the airport. Councillors mentioned the potential for them to find a new place to land the air ambulance several times.

Several hangars are leased; APEX Helicopters, an ariel crop spraying/charter/sightseeing business, operate from there, and the local Air Cadets use the facility for gliding practice.

According to the North Huron website, they “host the Midwestern Ontario Gliding Centre from April to June and September to November with participants traveling from all over Ontario. Recently the site of the R. C. Jets Rally the airport also hosts fly-in breakfasts in the summer months.”

The property that contains the airport and the runway will be considered severed and as such will likely be sold separately, or the agricultural land will continue to be leased out and the airport proper be sold.

More information will be provided from staff in a report, that will be prepared by staff to determine the next steps in the process, according to Carson Lamb, clerk for North Huron.

Lamb said in an email, as set out in the Township’s Sale and Disposition of Land Policy, council will need to declare the land surplus to the needs of the township, provide direction to staff as to the method of disposal of the surplus lands (i.e., advertising in newspapers, public tender, list with a real estate broker, etc.) as well as a deadline for offers to be received, if applicable, and provide direction on whether to obtain an appraisal.

The matter will be brought before council at a future date once the report is completed.

Cory Bilyea, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Wingham Advance Times