Unable to fund needed repairs, town opens possibility of closing its municipal airport
Residents of Golden, British Columbia will meet tonight in a virtual town hall to voice their opinions on a looming decision that could have far-reaching ramifications for the future of aviation in small communities.
Golden is nestled between two national parks and two mountain ranges in southeastern B.C.. A two-and-a-half hour drive from the nearest airport with passenger service, the town of 3,700 full-time residents has reached an aviation crossroads: will it spend millions to rehabilitate its small municipal airport or close up shop and use the prime land along the Columbia River for something else?
“We would all agree that having an airport in your community is a wonderful thing,” said Jon Wilsgard, Golden’s Town Manager who oversees all municipal departments including the airport. “There’s all kinds of benefits. But as prudent asset managers for the community and responsible to the taxpayer, they have a duty of care for anything outside a core or essential service, to really bring in experts to give them a thorough, thorough, robust rationale as to why our community really needs something.”
“As elected officials we’re looking at what level of taxpayers dollars do you put into a facility, what level of benefit does it provide to them and does that make sense?” said Golden Mayor Ron Oszust in an interview.
With a single 4,500-foot runway and hemmed in on all sides by high mountain peaks, Golden’s airport has never turned a profit. There are no commercial flights, no charters and 5,300 aircraft movements last year – a mix of flying clubs, commuters, medical evacuations, forest fire fighting, and military aircraft. Add to that a search and rescue operation, heliski flights in the winter, and backcountry helicopter flights in the summer and the picture that emerges is of a quiet airport that serves a diverse set of needs.
So why is its future in doubt? Oszust said the cost to operate the airport, $104,000 last year, isn’t the issue. “We’ve been able to maintain the runway and the airport to the degree that we have, but also recognizing that it’s almost getting to the end of life and large capital needs go into it.”
A 2015 report prepared for the town council rated the runway and apron in “poor” condition and said the asphalt is at the end of its useful life. While no one is assigned to staff the airport full time, town crews have spent hours sealing cracks in the deteriorating pavement, just to keep it serviceable.
At the same time, town staff recommended the runway be widened from 23 to 30 metres to allow Dash 8-100 aircraft to land in Golden, even though the type is not flown by either of Canada’s national airlines. Throw in lighting upgrades for night operations, and town council was looking at a cool $6.4 million to bring the airport up to snuff – a lot of money for a community that brought in $6 million in property taxes for all of last year and is heavily dependent on tourism for its survival.
“We have an international airport in Cranbrook two and a half hours away,” said the mayor, “we have Calgary International Airport two and a half hours to the east. Does it make sense?”
“There are two types of communities in this world, those with an airport and those without an airport,” said B.C. Aviation Council Executive Director Dave Frank, representing 340 aviation companies and airports in the province. “Those with an airport have the opportunity to pursue a general aviation tourism strategy, a high-value tourism strategy, they’re in the game for business location studies.”
Golden is one of hundreds of municipally-owned airports across Canada. Some, such as Hamilton, Ontario an hour west of Toronto, have flourished in niche markets, such as cargo. Yet others have disappeared. In 2013, after nearly a decade of divisive debate, Edmonton closed its municipally-owned downtown airport, consolidating passenger flights at the city’s International Airport 25 km away, and turning the land over to residential development.
On top of that, COVID has created an existential risk for airports, especially for municipal facilities that have watched any landing fees they could collect evaporate in the pandemic. Because they’re owned by local governments, these facilities are not eligible for federal pandemic emergency assistance, making the financial squeeze that much more painful.
“It’s understandable though. COVID has hit our airport members very hard, especially the municipal airports,” he said. “These airports in the immediate term can become a huge drain on a municipality’s resources when normally they’re such a cherished asset.”
Frank would like Golden to apply for provincial grants, that cover up to 75% of a project’s cost, to help fund the rehabilitation.
“The council gets very concerned whenever a community starts talking about potentially decommissioning an airport,” said Frank.
Golden town officials point out questions about the airport’s role and its future predate the pandemic.
So far, both the BCAC and town leaders say the coming decision on Golden Airport’s future has not generated a lot of chatter. Jon Wilsgard, the town manager, said he’s only received “a couple of calls” from residents looking for more information. Dave Frank of the BCAC said his members have been too busy surviving the pandemic to take notice. But with a virtual public information session on the airport’s viability Wednesday, an online survey, and consultations with airport users starting in the coming weeks, that is about to change.
“We’re just hoping that the results of this study clearly demonstrate that if the community gets behind its airport it will be viewed as a key component of a community’s infrastructure, not a problem child,” said Frank.
“I think it should be clear that the council is in no way poised over the door and slam it,” said Wilsgard. “Everybody loves the airport. But through a process of due diligence and proper asset management what we owe to the taxpayer, we need to be able to find out the primary reasons for and against this and give us a local, a provincial, a regional, maybe national reason why this airport is important.”
“It’s amazing how many folk go down to a small municipal airport and just watch aircraft come and go,” said Ron Oszust, Golden’s Mayor who said he is approaching the question with an open mind.
“On the other side,” he said, “what is the opportunity, what is the potential of it? Could it be an access to a greater number of visitors to come into our community and enjoy what we have to offer? If it wasn’t there, would it be missed?”
Council is expecting to receive a consultant’s report in the late summer. A decision on the airport’s future is expected in the fall.