Debate over the value of municipal airports seems to be something every town or city goes through, often on a cyclical basis. The unprecedented increase in real estate values in recent years has been one of the main drivers for these debates.
Now it’s the city of Edmonton’s turn (again) to decide whether or not it really wants the City Centre Airport.
Last year the Edmonton City Council decided to re-evaluate the need for the oldest and one of the most significant airports in Canada. The ECCA (Edmonton City Centre Airport), also known as Blatchford Field, began life as an airfield in 1910 and was the site of many firsts in Canadian aviation history.
Blatchford Field received the very first license to operate an air harbour (as airports were called then) in Canada in 1926 and has been operating continuously ever since.
The ECCA was responsible for Edmonton becoming known as the "Gateway to the North", being used for over a century as the primary air terminal for flights to and from the Northwest and Yukon territories. The airport is home to the Alberta Aviation Museum, the second largest aviation museum in Canada, next to the Canada Aviation Museum in Ottawa.
However, history aside, the city now sees the ECCA as an obstruction to future development. It restricts high-rise developments in the downtown core, limits optimal routing of LRT lines and major roadways, limits the unrestricted expansion of the NAIT technical college campus, and of course stands in the way of huge monitory gains to be made from selling the land to developers, to name a few.
The airport is a busy one. With more than 85,000 movements a year it ranks in the top quartile of airports in Canada. There are over 50 aviation businesses and government organizations based at the airport, including three flight training schools, and two FBOs.
This healthy movement rate could be even higher but in 1996, the City restricted air carrier operations, forcing them to move to International Airport south of the city and limited operations at the ECCA to small charters.
In 2008 a moratorium was imposed on all development permits at the airport pending the outcome of the re-evaluation of the future of the airport. This and the imposing list of reports the city has put up on its website outlining other possible uses for the land has sent a strong signal to the airport businesses that making investments in developing their businesses is most likely throwing money away. So airport activity and growth has effectively been throttled.
I have been monitoring developments through contacts in Edmonton for the past year. In the past few months I have been in contact with the Kingsway Business Association (KBA), which seems to be the only local group actively working to save the airport at this time. Although some of the aviation businesses on the airport are members, most of the KBA members are businesses next to the airport on the south and east. The KBA website is www.edmontonkingsway.com.
COPA prepared a letter of support for retention of the airport in early May and sent it to Mayor Mandel, the city councilors, and the local MLA. This letter can be read here.
I have passed on to each of these organizations all of COPA’s material on supporting municipal airports and all 12 airport economic impact studies we have collected. I have offered to come to Edmonton to meet with anyone who is organizing to convince the city of the value of their airport, but there simply has not been any local group stepping up to the plate.
However, this may be changing in the near future. Recently I was told that a number of on-airport businesses and some of the above organizations are trying to organize a new group, to be called Aviation Edmonton, specifically to save the airport.
A strong local advocacy group of involved stakeholders is necessary to persuade the city and the public to retain and grow the ECCA. COPA will help but the effort needs to be driven locally.
The Kingsway Business Association has just established a new website for disseminating information about the City Centre Airport. For more information please visit this site and revisit frequently as new information is constantly being added. Don’t forget to do the on-line survey while you’re there: www.citycentreairport.ca.
Meanwhile, keep your prop spinning and visit Blatchford Field to help demonstrate to the city that it is a valuable asset.