Two years ago city officials announced the Chilliwack airport was revving up and getting ready for take-off, naming an aviation planning committee to take charge of the flight plan.
But it seems the take-off has stalled, or at least slowed, and fingers of blame are being pointed at the city and its 50-year lease agreement with airport managers Magnum Management Inc.
However, Magnum consultant Keith Hodsall told The Progress he was unaware of any complaints, and was surprised to hear that some members of the aviation planning committee are expressing “frustrations” with the pace of progress at the airport, and concerns about opportunities for development possibly being missed.
“We have received nothing but accolades from the aviation fraternity,” Hodsall said.
“We’re selling and renting these (hangar) units,” he said, and Magnum is investing in a weather station for the airport and an all-weather GPS system for commercial aircraft, as well as making improvements to the terminal building in an effort to make the airport a “more professional operation.”
He said “businesses from afar” are looking at locating to the airport, and more recreational fliers than ever are landing here because of crowded conditions at other airports to the west.
But aviation veteran Herb Porter, who owns a 15-acre property next to the airport that’s key to its future expansion, said aviation businesses are turning away from his land because of an access agreement they must sign to pay a fee to use the airport runway, and a fee for the mandatory use of fueling facilities operated by management, among other fees and conditions.
Most airport revenues come from fuel sales.
Porter likened access to the runway, which is still owned by the city under the lease agreement, to the access businesses have to city streets, which is paid for through their property taxes.
“No other aircraft operator or pilot within North America pays any user fees to use this publicly-funded airport,” he said. “This is a case of out-and-out discrimination against these few aviation businesses.”
But city staff said if Porter’s property were fully developed, runway traffic would double, and the added maintenance costs would be an unfair burden on residential taxpayers. An access fee is included in the lease that other airport businesses pay to Magnum, staff said.
Staff also insisted that the city is trying to work with Porter, hiring lawyers to navigate “uncharted” legal territory, and the bramble of Transport Canada regulations around airport operations.
Chilliwack Mayor Sharon Gaetz also said Porter is free to return his property to the Agricultural Land Reserve, instead of developing it for airport use, as his family originally requested.
“The city would be happy to turn it back to agricultural land, if he wants,” she said.
While Porter’s complaint is site-specific, it is linked to broader issues and concerns raised about the airport’s development at the aviation committee.
City Coun. Chuck Stam, a committee member, said the city set aside the airport property back in the late 1990s to protect it for aviation development that would benefit the community “and it’s still not happening very quickly.”
“I would say we’re not keeping up with the times in terms of technology and timeliness of services,” he said.
“There are a few frustrations the committee has with airport management,” he said, but he acknowledged the blame may not lie solely with Magnum, which has invested in the airport and attracted outside investors.
Committee chairman Ken Smith agreed, saying there is nothing wrong with Magnum’s management, but “they’re not aviation people … and it does bear some frustration with all of us.”
He said the aviation business is a difficult one, even for those familiar with the industry.
“They need to promote (the airport) because we do have one of the nicest airports in Canada,” he said.
The Chilliwack airport lands are being looked at as “the next place to go” by training schools in fixed-wing and helicopter flight because the airspace is crowded around Vancouver, Boundary Bay and Pitt Meadows, he said.
“Chilliwack stands next in line to be able to interest these flying schools,” he said. But the facility needs “just a few things done … to get up to speed” and “capitalize on all its abilities and potential.”
But, so far, such progress at the airport is “not as good as it could be,” he said.
Smith did not want to talk publicly about the lease agreement with Magnum.
But another airport user, who asked not to be identified because of a relationship with Magnum, said in his view the “fundamental flaw” in airport operations is the lease agreement.
Signed in April, 1997, the agreement is basically a public-private-partnership (P3) that gives Magnum the operating rights to the airport, in exchange for relieving the city of the financial risk and the task of day-to-day operations of the facility.
Chilliwack was an early leader in the development of municipal P3s, but today Mayor Gaetz said the city would not consider an agreement lasting 50 years.
She said the council of the day, of which she was one, felt the city should stay out of operating an airport.
The P3 was seen as “an opportunity for someone to make money, if they wish,” she said, while protecting the taxpayers from the financial risk.
There is no exit clause to the agreement, unless Magnum were to fall into non-compliance, which has only happened twice in the past, both minor instances fixed “very quickly,” according to city staff.
But the agreement also gives Magnum full authority over airport operations.
This is not how the municipal airport at the Township of Langley is operated.
Airport manager George Miller told The Progress he is responsible to the township, and, in short, the township calls the shots about operations.
The 44 businesses at the airport pay their leases through city taxes, the fee based on the size of the land occupied at the airport, he said.
There are no landing fees, no improvement fees, no passenger fees charged at the airport.
“We don’t want to put any roadblocks in the way (of development),” he said.
Meanwhile, in Chilliwack, Porter said he doubts any “aviation-minded” person or company will be interested in locating on his property, because of the fees and other conditions placed on the site.
“This is how the City of Chilliwack attracts new business?” he asked.
If the city had a long-term plan for the airport, he said, instead of the “knee-jerk decisions of the last few years, the airport might be in a position of envy from other areas. As it is, it is not.”
An “industry attraction” strategy is in the works at the Chilliwack Economic Partners Corporation, and a request for proposals will soon be issued for a consultant to work on how to attract new businesses to the airport, and what kind of businesses to target that will fit the facility’s size and distance from larger airstrips.