District to probe regional airport concept

Ken Johnston

Controversy was flying around the room at the 20th-annual Rainy River District Municipal Association general meeting in Stratton.
A resolution moved by Fort Frances Coun. Rick Wiedenhoeft, regarding the future of the Fort Frances Airport, was met with concerns from several other district communities.
In the initial version of the resolution, concerns arose around two paragraphs.
The first stated, “And whereas the operational costs and the maintenance of this regional airport must be supported by all residents in the western portion of the District.”
The second read, “And further be it resolved that this regional airport be funded by all the residents it serves in the western portion of the Rainy River District, including those in First Nations and the unincorporated areas.”
Lake of the Woods Township Reeve Val Pizey immediately spoke against the resolution.
“I think it is a little early with this resolution,” she argued. “We have no ideas on governance or financial information.”
“I agree,” echoed Emo Coun. Anthony Leek.
“We need to get more information,” he stressed. “This seems to be a little rushed.”
“What does this resolution mean to individual municipalities?” asked Pat Giles, clerk for both Dawson and Lake of the Woods townships.
“Can we, as individuals, decide on funding [without going back to our councils]?” he wondered.
“We see this as conceptual,” replied Fort Frances CAO Mark McCaig. “There is no onus on individual communities [at this time].”
“This gives Fort Frances meat to explore funding avenues,” noted RRDMA president and Rainy River Mayor Deb Ewald, who seconded the resolution.
But Rainy River Coun. Gord Armstrong said he also had problems voting for the resolution without more information.
“It does not read like a conceptual resolution,” he told delegates. “I feel uncomfortable when our council has not said ‘yea’ or ‘nay.’
“It needs to be re-worded and brought back later,” he argued.
Coun. Wiedenhoeft and Mayor Ewald agreed to table the resolution and have the RRDMA’s resolutions committee sit down with them to re-work it and bring it back later in the day.
When it was brought back, the two paragraphs were re-worded to sound less binding than the original version.
In the first paragraph of concern, it now stated, “And whereas the operational and the maintenance of this regional airport should be supported by all residents in the western portion of the District.”
The second paragraph was changed as follows, “And further be it resolved that a funding model for this regional airport be explored which would include the entire Rainy River District, First Nations, and the unincorporated areas except Atikokan.”
Atikokan was exempt from the resolution because the community has its own airport. But Atikokan Reeve Dennis Brown questioned the inclusion of “all” unincorporated areas.
“There are unincorporated areas east of Atikokan,” he noted. “I question whether it is fair to include them in a funding model for an airport in Fort Frances.”
However, it was decided to leave the resolution as amended.
Reeve Pizey again expressed concern.
“I still feel it is too early for this,” she stressed. “I have no information on expenses or traffic volumes.
“I have no data to make an informed decision.”
“All that information was sent out to all communities on Sept. 27, 2010,” replied McCaig.
But Reeve Pizey said she had not seen that information, and Coun. Armstrong and Coun. Leek seemed to reinforce that with their comments.
“If it was sent out, I stand corrected,” said Reeve Pizey, but added she has not seen it.
Coun. Wiedenhoeft and Fort Frances Coun. Ken Perry both said they had hoped the respective representatives from each community would have spoken to their councils after a meeting earlier last week, whether it meant calling a special meeting or at a regular one.
But with the short time frame between the meeting and RRDMA’s conference on Saturday, it was apparent that little discussion transpired between the two.
With the changes to the resolution approved, the call for the vote on it was made.
It passed with no one voting against it, although Reeve Pizey did abstain.
“We will try and walk through this together and walk slowly,” McCaig pledged, noting they have looked at many ideas and how Kenora and Dryden operate their airports.
“We are open to any idea that will work,” he added.
The issue of the airport arose last year when Fort Frances reported to area councils that its costs have been rising.
Fort Frances is hoping district residents who use the facility will see a value in renaming it to be a regional airport—and that the communities in the district will help pay for it.
McCaig said the Town of Fort Frances’ annual budget is about $21 million, with the airport accounting for 3.11 percent of that total in 2009 and 3.28 percent in 2010.