Council takes next step in airports transition

By Don Fraser, St. Catharines Standard

File photo Niagara District Airport

File photo Niagara District Airport

A divided Niagara Region Council has voted to advance to the next negotiations phase in adopting responsibility for two regional airports.

During a special Thursday meeting, councillors against continuing with the airport move brought up environmental contamination and taxpayer affordability, as well as a potential diversion away from needed transportation initiatives and other priorities.

Other councillors noted any positive vote — with an amendment requiring an environmental review — only started negotiations before any decision was made. It was the right economic move for the region, they said.

Previously, the regional public works committee approved in principle taking on the operations and governance of Niagara District Airport in Niagara-on-the-Lake and Niagara Central Dorothy Rungeling Airport in Pelham.

As approved by councillors Thursday, regional staff are to proceed with detailed negotiations with the current funding municipalities and develop a transition plan that includes financial details and budget implications.

The NDA is supported by Niagara Falls, St. Catharines and Niagara-on-the-Lake and the south regional airport is funded by Welland, Pelham, Port Colborne and Wainfleet.

This summer, the regional transportation steering committee supported the airports’ transition, despite a staff recommendation recommending a joint-governance model between the NDA and the Region and funding municipalities and and that the municipal funding model remain as is with the Rungeling airport.

St. Catharines Coun. Andy Petrowski led the earlier discussion Friday, voicing serious concerns about the environmental status of the property.

Among issues cited are the property hosting a former dump, sewage lagoons and salt-contaminated dirt piles from excavated right-of-ways.

Petrowski voiced concerns about protecting taxpayers “on the front-end of buying something that may cost us tens of millions of dollars in cleanup.

Niagara Falls Coun. Bob Gale said given the low attendance at public meetings and in a questionnaire, it represents “such a minute amount of people that are in support of this airport that have shown up, and naturally (it includes) everyone that owns an airplane.”

“There isn’t a business plan for this, to make it work,” Gale said, also emphasizing concerns about Niagara Region’s potential clean-up liability of the site and the region had more pressing priorities currently, including transit.

Financial concerns and priorities were also a concern for St. Catharines Coun. Brian Heit, including the possibility of spending $10 million over the next five years in capital spending “in two airports we don’t really need.

“If we spent $10 million on regional housing, imagine what we could do and how many people (in need) we could house.”

Glen Cowan, the Region’s associate director of finance consulting and special projects, has previously said the airports are expected to continue losing money. He has also estimated annual operating and capital costs for NDA at $1.35 million and $810,000 for NCRDA, with those projections possibly varying widely depending on factors like services offered at the airports.

Lincoln Coun. Bill Hodgson said Niagara Region had to take stock of its many existing priorities, including an infrastructure gap and lack of a clear business argument. “I don’t see the case,” he said.

Councillors later agreed to an amendment from Port Colborne David Barrick making further negotiations subject to completion of a Phase 2 environmental assessment paid for by the current owner/ operator.

“It’s the responsible thing to do, prior to entering any detailed negotiations,” Barrick said.

A number of councillors spoke in favour of moving the process forward, noting the evening vote wasn’t the final say on whether or not the Region would assume two airports.

“Let’s investigate the opportunities, let’s investigate the potential,” said Fort Erie Coun. Sandy Annunziata: “If at the end of the day it comes back that the risk is greater than the benefit, the council (may) suggest that’s not the best direction to pursue at this time.

The vote at hand isn’t one about choosing between intermunicipal transit and airports, said Pelham Mayor Dave Augustyn.”

“Intermunicipal transit is very important to council … there is significant progress on that front

“These two airports do work together,” he added. “There is development occurring (there) … we should look at this and move this forward.

“These airports are important to Niagara’s future.”

The time is right to move forward said St. Catharines Mayor Walter Sendzik.

“If we reject this motion today, essentially you’ll be ending air transportation in Niagara… as three municipalities (funding Niagara District), we’re in a position where we can’t get to the next step," he said. "With a partnership with the Region, we can make that next step including looking at the private sector and seeking out private sector opportunities.

Niagara Region Chair Al Caslin acknowledged the issue was a divisive one and also that Niagara Region had “an enormous amount on the go right now” in areas that include transportation.

From that came a motion, which was defeated, to defer the matter for eight months— a move Caslin said would allow for more staff and other information about the airports issue and “perhaps move further along on other transportation initiatives.”

Councillors voted 13-10 in favour of continuing the transition process negotiations, following the environmental assessment.

Voting YES- Annunziata, Augustyn, Barrick, Baty, Campion, Grenier, Joyner, MacGregor, Maves, Quirk, Rigby, Sendzik, Timms

NO- Bentley, D’Angela, Easton, Edgar, Gale, Heit, Hodgson, Petrowski, Redekop, Volpatti