Background – Waterville Airport
The Kings County Municipal Airport or Waterville Airport (CCW3) is situated approximately 16 km west of Kentville. It has a 3,500 ft x 75 ft asphalt runway, paved taxiway, a paved apron with tie downs and above ground fuel tanks. The airport covers approximately 94 acres and is operated year-round seven-days-a-week (8:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m.)
The airport has a long history, starting as an auxiliary landing strip for a World War II training centre at Greenwood, N.S. After the war it reverted to farm fields for short while before being revitalized as a private airport. The air-strip changed ownership several times before it was purchased by the Municipality of Kings (MOK) in about 1976 with a $50,000 grant from the Provincial Government. This allowed the MOK to apply for Federal funds to improve the airport. By 2013 it was home to an aviation training centre, two aviation shops, a sky-diving school and centre, and over 30 aircraft. Many aviators had invested significant money in building hangers and shops to make the airport an active aviation centre.
The Airport is a public facility that contributes to our community in many ways. It not only serves the county of Kings but people in Wolfville, Berwick, Kentville, and the whole region. It provides air transportation, tourism, training in aviation, repair services and a centre for any citizen who wants to enjoy aviation. Pilots from all over the Maritimes use the airport and it is a part of a network of facilities in our region. It is operated by a volunteer cooperative (Waterville Airport Cooperative Ltd or WACL) with a subsidy (about $50,000) from the Municipality. For the cost of what an average employee earns per year it generates economic activity of more than a million dollars a year. Each summer a dozen Canadian Air Cadets earn their pilot’s licences here. Many Valley pilots who work in the industry as bush pilots, airline pilots, and fly as recreational pilots got their training at Waterville Airport.
Time Line of the Maneuvering to Remove the Airport
In 2012 the Michelin Tire company invested $346 Million in its North American plants but none in any of the three in Nova Scotia. Michelin Tire plants must compete against each other to get money for expansion. The provincial government (New Democratics) wanted jobs for Nova Scotia and so they asked Michelin Canada what would be required to expand operations. Company officials indicated that due to the layout of the plant and location of equipment, the only possible area to expand was northward into airport lands. Michelin requested a province study on relocating the Waterville Airport.
In May 2012, the province paid $100,000 for a study to look at moving the Waterville airport. There was no inquiry as to whether the airport should be moved but the users of the airport were asked what a new airport would be like.
Due to the uncertainty of its future, progress at the Waterville airport stopped. Three hangers to be built and a business that was planned for the airport were canceled as a result of this.
By January 2013, the engineering and airport cost study was finished and submitted to the province but it was kept secret until May 2013. The study estimated a $12 Million cost to build a new airport and mentioned several possible sites (not revealed in the public report). An alternative move to Canadian Force Base (CFB) Greenwood, 20 km to the west, would cost less but still be about $7 Million. This latter option relies on the base command allowing civilian aviation on the base which it currently does not do.
Meanwhile in April 2013, Michelin invested $750 Million building a new modular and expandable plant in South Carolina.
The Municipality of Kings has continued to work towards making the airport land available to Michelin and in June 2013, the Kings County Council formally agreed to make the airport land available to Michelin if it needs it. At the same time Michelin stated that it had no plans to expand the Waterville plant. At that time the MOK promised to work to provide a new airport for the county.
In the Fall of 2013, MOK inquired into the possibility of a civilian airport at CFB Greenwood. The Waterville Airport Cooperative agreed to the airport move, preferably not to Greenwood but placed in the county closer to Halifax. The NDP government was defeated in a provincial election and replaced with a Liberal one.
February 2014, new Liberal provincial government (via the Department of Economic and Rural Development and Tourism) urged the MOK to quickly make the airport property easily available to Michelin. There was no reason given for this urgency and Michelin had not indicated any possibility of expanding the Waterville plant.
Finally on 10th of March 2014, with a notice of only a few hours and a Council session closed to the public, the council of MOK voted 10 to 1 to close the Waterville airport after 30 Sept 2014. There still is no commitment by Michelin for expansion here. The Chief Administrative Officer (CAO) and Warden ordered the members of council to no longer talk about the airport.
Provincial Role in Closing Waterville Airport
(Council approved a motion to “divest itself of the lands identified by Michelin as being necessary for the possible expansion of the production line at the Waterville Plant as soon as is reasonably possible taking into consideration all relevant factors including the relocation of the Municipal Airport.” – This is a result of ERDT Minister Michel Samson recommended that the province and MOK develop a purchase and sale agreement that would define the terms and conditions for a future transaction, which would satisfy Michelin’s concerns and make the Waterville plant a competitive option for expansion.)
Formation of Airport Taskforce
In response to the unreasonable and sudden complete elimination of possibilities for aviation in the region, the Annapolis Valley Flying Association invited interested parties to join them in a task force to educate the Council and public to the value of having the airport in Waterville and work to extend the life of the CCW3 at its current site.
The owner of the fight training centre at the airport said that he can not survive a delay for new facilities. Hanger owners will be required remove the buildings at their own cost. The sky-diving activities are also planning to leave the Valley and are preparing a small airport and jump zone in Hants County. There will be little aviation left to move to another airport. It is very unlikely, that a new $12 million airport can sustain itself after the existing aviation businesses have been driven away or disappeared.
In April 2014, MOK established a Waterville Airport Relocation Project Steering Committee, an advisory body to the Council that will assist with addressing issues related to the airport relocation. This is a result of a letter from ERDT informing the MOK that the province would not commit to any funding without the benefit of a detailed assessment, including a business case study. However, in that same letter the ERDT stated that even after the study the province would not contribute funds to new airport in any significant amount. The MOK believes that money is available from the Infrastructure Canada for a new airport. The study is expected to cost $75,000 shared between the Province and Municipality. The terms of reference for the study were written without any input from the aviation community.
Consequence of Waterville Airport Closure
The proposal of MOK (at the urging of the provincial ERDT) is to quickIy transfer ownership of the west end of the airport land to Michelin so they can say they have the land in hand when apply for expansion money. This will probably mean tearing up the airport asphalt runways and cleaning up the site. This will not be inexpensive and it is not clear who will pay for this. A figure of $1.35 Million has been quoted as the amount the MOK will receive for the land (It is not clear who is paying for this, the province or Michelin). That monies had been promised by the MOK to go toward the new airport but MOK has already mentioned that some of the money will be used for studies and possibly clean-up costs.
Once the airport is closed, aircraft can not take off and land so they will have to fly to another airport leaving the hangers empty. If Michelin at Waterville never gets any expansion money, the airport will be derelict land destined to become a business park under plans put forth by the MOK.
In April 2014, officials from CFB Greenwood met with pilots, businesses and hanger owners to gather the necessary information for the needs assessment related to using Greenwood military airport for general aviation. The command at CFB Greenwood is willing to consider a partnership with the local aviation community. The needs assessment will be completed soon but it is clear that CFB Greenwood has no funds to provide infrastructure for this partnership. There will also be restrictions related to security at the base along with the permissions necessary from DND in Ottawa. There is also a problem of available land for building any civilian hangers or other structures. The Greenwood Flight Centre currently at Waterville Airport used to operate out of CFB Greenwood but was ejected many years ago due to a policy change and the flight school and club at CFB Shearwater were also kicked out. This sort of thing can happen again .
Certain members of the MOK Council believe that the Waterville airport is expendable and are willing to give it away on a chance of some economic benefit will come from it. They quote the recent study by the Nova Scotia Commission on Building Our New Economy: “a greater willingness to take on the risks associated with economic change and progress “ and as a result they say they “must do whatever is necessary to allow for business expansion while at the same time positioning itself to take maximum advantage of the opportunities associated with the growth of one of the leading export organizations in the Province. “
The MOK or Province have never done any study to determine if there is any real possibility that the Waterville Michelin plant really has to build to the north side of their plant (they always quote the requirements stated by Michelin spokespersons) nor have they analyzed the tire industry economics to know if there is any good chance of Michelin International investing the $500 million always quoted as the size of the investment (all this is taken of hope and belief). Michelin Waterville is already expanding over the next few years with an investment of $73 million to create about 50 jobs and will involve equipment improvements, including the installation of new technologies in all aspects of the manufacturing process. The project will involve adding 32,280 square feet to the factory but will not need airport land.
There has recently (May 2014) been a meeting (Round Table) between representatives of provincial, municipal, Michelin, and stakeholders of the Waterville Airport to exchange information. The exchange provided a clearer picture of the positions of all parties involved but changed none of the realities of situation.