Voters will help decide fate of PR Airport

Voters in Peace River will give its town council direction on the future of the Peace River Airport in a vote Feb. 5. An advance vote takes place Feb. 1.

Susan Thompson
South Peace News

Residents of Peace River are getting the chance to have their say on the future of the Peace River Regional Airport.

In October 2019, council opened a Request for Proposals [RFP] for someone else to run the airport, but is seeking public input before making a final decision.

At their council meeting Jan. 13, council voted to hold a non-binding referendum on whether the Town should continue to run the airport, or if airport governance should instead be turned over to a non-profit.

Holding a referendum is a way of gathering public feedback that the Town rarely uses. The last time councillors could recall holding a Town-wide vote was on the issue of banning smoking in restaurants.

“It’s a big topic and in times of provincial cutbacks it’s important for us to look at all sorts of inputs into some of our major decisions,” deputy mayor Elaine Manzer says.

In what councillors joke was the longest motion in recorded Town history, Councillor Colin Needham put forward the motion to hold a referendum with a question that will read as follows:

“The Town of Peace River currently owns and operates the Peace River Regional Airport, which costs regional taxpayers over $740,000 per year. The Town is considering alternatives for ownership and management of the airport. All the options being considered involve turning over operations and ownership to an independent, non-profit organization with a required commitment to preserving current services at the airport such as Air Ambulance and Forestry Services.”

Councillor Orren Ford made the separate motion to include an exit poll.

“[I would] love to get all the feedback that we can from the residents as this is a very, very hot topic,” Ford says.

CAO Chris Parker adds, “If you take a look at all the other things that we were looking at, whether it be the telephone poll or the digital survey or the mailout, there was difficulties with each and every one of those proposals, whereas with a referendum they can come and say yes or no.”

The exit poll will be used to gather any additional comments and suggestions that aren’t covered by the main referendum question.

Letting a for-profit company handle airport governance is not being given as an option in the referendum because the Town reviewed the idea and found a for-profit company would still need to be subsidized by taxpayers. All of the airport property is also taxable, meaning the cost may be a deterrent to potential new for-profit operators.

Council also reviewed information that other airports including Slave Lake, Red Deer, Fort St. John, and Grande Prairie are all run by some form of non-profit.

Municipal referendums are run according the rules of the Local Authorities Elections Act [LAEA] under the Municipal Government Act. CAO Christopher Parker has been appointed as the returning officer for the vote, and Ruth McCuaig has been appointed as the substitute returning officer. Those staff members are the only two who have attended training on revisions to the LAEA.

Administration estimates the referendum will cost $3,800 plus $7,360 in staff charges for running the vote.

Employers must legally give their employees time off work to go vote. Voters will need to show proper ID, or have a friend with ID vouch for them.

A post about the referendum on the Town’s website lists all of the past plans and agreements around the airport since 1996 with links to original documents for anyone who wants background before voting.

The information there states if the Town decides to let a non-profit take over the airport, the new owner will be able to make all business decisions for the airport including cancelling or renegotiating the current fuel agreement, creating their own leases and terms, adjusting landing fees and other airport fees, and managing any issues with tenants.

The Town has been criticized for its handling of all of those issues by two different committees formed by residents, as well as by some tenants.

The Town, in turn, will support the new owner by providing and paying for a trained staff member and a water operator to help in the transition. If a non-profit takes over the Town may offer some financial support for no more than two years.

In a statement posted to Facebook, Councillor Byron Schamehorn says nothing going on at the airport has any impact on Air Ambulance services, a common concern among residents.

“CanWest continues to provide professional and timely medical evacuations,” Schame- horn says.

Northern Air recently cancelled its passenger service to the region, something CEO Nate Hillman has said was inevitable once the company lost the air ambulance contract to CanWest. Without passenger service, the airport will lose its funding through the federal Airports Capital Assistance Prorgam [ACAP], an issue council recently raised in person with deputy prime minister Chrystia Freeland.

The lack of passenger flights may also affect whether doctors can fly in to Peace River to serve patients, a concern raised in a December letter by Dr. Welch that has been made public.

The Peace Region Development Committee [PRDC] led by Bob Blayone has posted that letter to Facebook and criticized the Town for not getting passenger service in place through Northwestern Air, an airline that offers flights to Edmonton, Fort McMurray, Fort Chipewyan, Fort Smith, Hay River, and High Level.

The Town says they are open to the possibility and are already discussing it.

“Since May of 2017 the Town has had some really promising conversations with Brian Harrold at Northwestern Air through airport manager Will Stewart, CAO Parker, director of corporate services Greg Towne and others,” Schamehorn says.

“Discussions around efficiencies and synergies with Northern Air are already underway with regards to baggage handling and refueling prices/logistics to assist in the re-introduction of scheduled service at our local airport. In addition, the prospect of the airport being operated by a professional non-profit entity is not at all concerning to Northwestern.”

Schamehorn has posted a copy of the letter the Town wrote in response to a letter from Northwestern in May 2017. The committee had been circulating the Northwestern Letter on Facebook with claims the Town had not responded.

However, Northwestern has had to reduce some flights and cancel all January flights to Fort McMurray due to a shortage of pilots, according to both the Town’s referendum information and a statement on Northwestern’s website.

“This delay isn’t optimal, of course, so we’re currently in a holding pattern until the staffing situation can be rectified. We wish Northern Air the best in their continued operations, and Northwestern a speedy search for new staff,” Schamehorn says.

If a non-profit entity takes over the airport, they will also be responsible for taking over the negotiations for a scheduled passenger service with a for-profit company. Otherwise that responsibility will remain with the Town.

Blayone and the committee have also repeatedly demanded the RFP process be ended, and asked Peace River and its municipal partners to form a Part 9 corporation to run the airport instead.

The Town of Peace River and its partners such as Northern Sunrise County, the County of Northern Lights, and the Town of Grimshaw, have so far declined to attend a joint meeting with the committee to discuss that idea, citing their wish to first see the results of the RFP process.

“They insinuated they had a number of ideas and if they had those ideas we thought they might put them into an RFP for us to consider,” Mayor Tom Tarpey says.

“We’ve heard them. We are doing many of things they’ve suggested, just not exactly the way that they want it done,” says Parker.

“With the whole RFP process, any organization could have come back and said, ‘Hey, we want to form specifically a Part 9 company.’”

Parker says a Part 9 corporation would be considered a non-profit and so is included in the referendum question.

“So we’re trying hard to incorporate many of questions and concerns that not just them but other individuals have put out but also to gather information to make sure this is done properly,” he says.

“If you look at the airport issue, we’ve spent a great deal of time and effort before council and administration dealing with this issue,” Parker says.

“We’re listening, we’re saying if there is someone else who can do it differently and better, we’re willing to open up and allow that group to do that.”

The referendum will be held on Feb. 5 between 10 a.m. to 7 p.m., with an advance vote on Feb. 1.

Information on the upcoming referendum is available online at the Town’s website. Please go to https://peaceriver.ca/notice-of-vote-on-a-question/

The question:

Residents will be asked to choose one of these two options:

  • “Yes, I am in favour of having an independent non-profit organization with a commitment to preserving current services such as Air Ambulance and Forestry services owning and operating the Peace River Regional Airport.”
  • “No, I am not in favour of having an independent non-profit organization with a commitment to preserving current services such as Air Ambulance and Forestry services owning and operating the Peace River Regional Airport.”

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