Little airport taking off

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Now that Villeneuve is a full-service airport, complete with customs, an instrument landing system to land in bad weather, and an extended 5,000-foot runway development has really taken off.

All available lots have been sold and the Edmonton International Airport is starting the presale of its Phase 2 lots as it prepares to break ground in 2017.

“Villeneuve is the right airport to be at, it’s got the control tower, it’s got the ILS, it’s got the two runways,” said recreational pilot and business owner Eldon Gjesdal.

Despite a slowdown in private aircraft ownership – the Canadian Owners and Pilots Association recorded 2015 as the lowest growth rate for the Canadian private civil aircraft fleet since the turn of the millennium at 0.25 per cent – and a national decline in small general aviation traffic, which dropped from more than 2.4 million annual movements in 1999 to just around 1.6 million in 2013, Gjesdal sees nothing but a healthy appetite among local recreational pilots.

The owner of Edmonton-based Energy Efficient Homes recently ventured into the aviation industry. He already has two hangars built, his third is under construction – but all available space has been sold – and he’s considering a fourth.

“I’ve got this lot here on hold, but…” said Gjesdal, hesitating for only a second. “I’m going to sign the lease on it.”

One of his hangars will soon feature a Rotating Aircraft Carrier. The Lazy Susan of aircraft storage, the system holds up to five smaller single and twin-engine planes that can be accessed by the push of a button. Once installed, it will be the only one of its kind in North America.

Even more revolutionary, his hangars are condominium style. Sectioned off into five spaces, the 6,000-foot centre portion is shared by multiple owners leasing space for their aircraft, while the four corner units are privately owned. This model, he explains, allows private small aircraft owners to more affordably own their “own little piece of Villeneuve.”

“That’s why we’re all sold out,” said Gjesdal.

One mild February afternoon, recreational pilot Trevor Howard was hard at work putting some finishing touches on his private hangar. The owner of four planes, Howard was renting space at Cooking Lake before moving to Villeneuve.

“It’s very expensive to buy at Cooking Lake,” he explained.

Howard also needed a longer runway for his Mooney M20 (piston-single), affectionately calling them “runway hogs.”

“They need a lot of runway to land and take off,” he said. “Really the only other choice of airport would be the Edmonton International, which is not possible.”

In fact, the Villeneuve Airport was built as a reliever airport. Its main purpose is to divert small general aviation recreational or training aircraft away from the larger airport, in order to provide a safe learning environment for entry-level pilots and a smooth operating landscape for commercial and passenger aircraft.

But Steve Maybee, vice-president of operations, said the airport authority doesn’t want to stop at that. It believes that the airport is an important economic driver that can be leveraged by the region.

“Aviation at an airport like this really helps communities develop,” he said. “You’ve got all kind of activity going on, people spending money out here, flying into this airport and then they’ll pop into St. Albert for meetings, or they’ll have business in St. Albert.”

Thompson Brothers – a contractor for heavy earth moving at the oilsands – have set up the opposite business model, with an office and a private hangar at the Villeneuve that allows executives to fly out to job sites in Fort McMurray. Maybee foresees more of such opportunities on the horizon.

Plus there are all the spin-off jobs.

“With all these aircraft flying in here, we need mechanics to fix them and repair them, we can have all the parts support,” he said.

Since the airport is only in its infancy, it’s difficult to evaluate its economic impact on Sturgeon County, said acting manager of economic development Collin Steffes.

But Mayor Tom Flynn sees a “big, beautiful future” for the area.

“If we can get better water and wastewater service to the Villeneuve Airport, then they can build bigger buildings and we can start to have that lower end of the logistics business come in and out of there,” he said.

Located along Highway 44 and the only full-service general aviation airport in the capital region, the airport is well poised to become a gateway to north. The county’s Municipal Development Plan identifies Villeneuve as “ a strategic logistic hub and an employment centre for Sturgeon County.”

There is also a commercial park planned for a portion of the lands as well.

“That could provide a bunch of new employment, a bunch of new facilities, and of course an added tax base for the county,” said Flynn.

But that hinges on access to the county’s water and wastewater systems.

Regionally, the EIA authority reports that the 19 businesses, which cover activities such as aircraft flight training, fixed-wing aircraft maintenance, helicopter maintenance and aviation operations, contributes $19 million to the economy and provides about 100 direct jobs.

The county and the airport authority are currently working on a potential solution on how to provide domestic water to the airport.

Maybee said the airport wants to have a pipe attached to the county’s waterline to avoid having to truck in water every day.

This is necessary if they want to branch out into non-aeronautical business opportunities, such as restaurants and hotels that would serve the aviation and business community, as well as the residents of Villeneuve.

“That will bring in more people, which brings in more people to spend money on fuel, which helps this whole area,” said Maybee.

Phase 2 of development is ready to kick-off at the airport. The site is looking at another $2 million in investment to develop more taxiways and hangars for business and private use.

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Michelle Ferguson