The not-for-profit corporation that runs the Saint John Airport is looking for partners to build a new "logistics park" around its runways.
"It's the opportunity that's available to us now as North America redraws its industrial map," said Sandy Ross, president and CEO.
New operations in Saint John could help companies address supply chain issues which have cropped up during the pandemic, said Ross.
"Air represents a great solution for being able to bring everything from fresh produce to things that need to be delivered in a timely fashion, or things that need to be brought in and stored and then be delivered quickly to another market."
The two "big ticket" types of operations the airport would like to attract are ground transportation and storage and air cargo, he said, adding the property would also be suitable for aircraft maintenance.
If the vision comes to fruition, Ross quipped that it would represent a "quadfecta" for the city, which already has container traffic moving through by "ocean, road and rail."
They could all work together, he said, "completing the picture of Saint John as a logistics hub for North America."
The airport sees this as a more feasible growth opportunity than increasing passenger traffic, Ross admitted, given the size of the local market and the current market conditions, more broadly speaking.
With some airlines reducing their flights to the Maritimes, it's a "tough time," for the region's airports, said Karl Moore, an associate professor in the faculty of management at McGill University with expertise in the aviation industry.
The logistics park is "a very good idea," for the Saint John airport, he said.
"It's quite entrepreneurial of them and clever," said Moore. "I really like the can-do entrepreneurial spirit."
If there are going to be fewer flights, this may be something the airport can do to "serve the community and to pay for itself."
Moore isn't sure any other airports in Canada have a logistics park, but said he's certainly heard of them elsewhere in the world and seen them "turn out to be quite good for the local economy."
He compared the concept to the "cluster" of industrial operations around the Montreal airport, where Bombardier makes executive jets, CAE Inc. makes simulators and Air Canada has its corporate headquarters, for example.
"It probably has a good shot at working out" in Saint John, he said, but "it certainly would be on a smaller scale."
Having access to an airport where planes can land and do things and take off rapidly would appeal to a number of companies, said Moore.
And the proximity of the port is "a nice one-two combination."
"The bulk of shipping is done by sea," he said, "but when you want something rapidly, the airport is going to do it."
Ross estimates there is potential for tens of millions of dollars worth of development in the short term and hundreds of millions in the long term.
Eventually, 3,000 jobs could be housed there, he said, basing that figure on what he said was the typical rate for industrial parks in Atlantic Canada of three to five jobs per acre and the 650 acres available.
The first step in the plan has already been accomplished, said Ross, and that was getting the Saint John Airport Inc.'s land lease with Transport Canada, which owns the airport, extended to the year 2079.
It makes the location more attractive to potential tenants, he said, because they can spread out their building costs over a longer period.
At the moment, airport staff are in conversation with a couple of companies that may be interested in setting up shop in the logistics park, said Ross, but he declined to disclose their names citing confidentiality agreements.
Two "small commercial developments" are in the works now, he said, and could be announced within about four months.