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District open to airport funding request

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The Town of Fort Frances introduced a resolution to the Rainy River District Municipal Association last week, asking district municipalities to help foot the bill to run the airport here, but it will take some time before any decisions are made.

The resolution, drafted by Coun. Rick Wiedenhoeft, was received by the RRDMA at its Sept. 14 meeting and now has been forwarded to each of the member municipalities—Alberton, Atikokan, Chapple, Dawson, Emo, Lake of the Woods, La Vallee, Morley, and Rainy River—to be discussed by their respective councils.

Mayor Roy Avis, who attended the meeting along with other members of town council, said the initial response was receptive.

“We put a resolution forward, and we spoke to the resolution,” he noted. “There was comments from people throughout the district, a lot of favourable comments, and people wanting information.

“Knowing that there would not be a decision made that night, because everybody had to take it back to their own council, I thought it went very well,” Mayor Avis added.

“They do want some more information—financial information, terms of reference information, and things like that—if we do proceed down that path,” he remarked.

“At this point, our administration is putting that all together.”

Emo Mayor Ed Carlson said he supports the idea in principle, but without any facts and numbers in front of them, it’s difficult to make any informed decisions at this point.

“We all have our budgets set for the year until January, and it’s really difficult to pull dollars out of an existing budget to put it in there,” he noted.

“But it’s certainly something we can work towards.”

Speaking for himself and not the rest of Emo council, Mayor Carlson said he agrees with Fort Frances that the airport is a “district airport,” and he sees the importance of it to everyone.

“We can’t afford to lose it in no way, shape, or form,” he stressed. “You look at the industry coming online, with Rainy River Resources. . . .

“If things are moving ahead as they say, that airport will only be more and more vital to the area.

“It’s one of the reasons, I am sure, that makes Rainy River Resources choose this area as a viable operation is to have that link with the outside, to be able to get to Toronto in just a few hours,” Mayor Carlson added.

“Even shipping minerals back and forth, or whatever the case may be.

“Even to the private individual—I’ve used it many times myself in the past,” he continued. “It’s a lot nicer to spend 40 minutes in a plane to Thunder Bay than driving for four-and-a-half hours.

“I just wish Bearskin could do something about their prices,” Mayor Carlson remarked. “I don’t know why they don’t want to fly full rather than with just a few seats, but that’s their business.”

He reiterated that the Fort Frances Airport “has served our area hugely in the past, and I know it will in the future.”

“It’s really important to the entire district,” he stressed.

“We certainly support Fort Frances in that somehow we have to come up with a solution somewhere,” Mayor Carlson said. “Maybe as a collective we can access more dollars—there’s so many avenues we have to look at and so many things we don’t know yet.

“I am looking forward to sitting down with Mark [McCaig], and Roy and the rest of the council, and seeing what we’re looking at, what the per capita costs are, and is it feasible or isn’t it?”

Atikokan Mayor Dennis Brown, who also attended last week’s meeting, said district municipalities, with the exception of Atikokan, should help pay for the airport.

“Atikokan has its own airport and we’re spending lots of money up here to maintain it,” he noted.

“We’ve just gone through a process where we have used stimulus money to resurface for the first time since it was built in the early ’70s.

“I tried to impress upon the Town of Fort Frances that somehow they have to exclude Atikokan because the Fort Frances Airport is important, but there aren’t many people from Atikokan that use the Fort Frances Airport,” Mayor Brown added.

The airport in Atikokan is used for medical flights, as well as tourist outfitters and the Ministry of Natural Resources, and Mayor Brown expects it will be used more and more in the future for mining business-related flights.

That said, he noted the Fort Frances Airport is a vital service to the west end of the district.

“I do think there is a need for the all the municipalities to work together to ensure that the Fort Frances Airport survives because, as we all know, the demographics indicate that we’re becoming an older population base and there are times when the medevac isn’t available and we have to use fixed-wing aircraft for emergency flights,” Mayor Brown said.

“It’s important to keep that continuing on,” he stressed.

“I think the Town of Fort Frances is correct—all the municipalities from Fort Frances right out to Emo, Morson use it. The ambulance serves all those communities.

“It should be looked upon as a regional airport from Mine Centre to Rainy River,” Mayor Brown added. “Excluding Atikokan, there are nine municipalities in the Rainy River District, so I think it’s only fair all nine should contribute.”

Someone at last week’s meeting suggested a system could be set up to help Atikokan’s airport as well as the one in Fort Frances, in which case every municipality, including Atikokan, would pay.

As first reported earlier this month, the town has said it can’t afford to run the Fort Frances Airport by itself anymore.

The net operational cost of running the airport rose from $94,020 in 2007 to $210,043 in 2009.

In its resolution to the RRDMA, the town has recommended district municipalities help pay for airport operations based on the Rainy River District Social Services Administration Board’s new funding apportionment formula.

This most recent version of that formula sees the town pay a 36 percent share of all the municipal funding that is paid to DSSAB, with the rest of the municipalities each paying a lesser share.

As such, following this formula would mean the town would pay for 36 percent of the cost of running the airport, with the others paying their lesser share.

Mayor Brown noted the “beauty” of using the formula is unorganized areas would pay, as well, with the provincial government footing their portions.

The shared cost, if approved, would start on Jan. 1, 2011—the same time the new DSSAB apportionment formula comes into effect.

In all likelihood, if the district municipalities agree to help pay for the airport, the name would be changed to reflect that.

When deciding to forward the resolution at its Aug. 30 meeting, several members of Fort Frances council agreed it’s high time everyone recognize the cost of running the airport, and the fact the airport truly serves Rainy River District and not just Fort Frances.

With a change to the DSSAB apportionment formula coming into effect Jan. 1, Fort Frances will be paying over $108,000 more to the DSSAB than it did this year and yet still is left supporting one of the district’s most critical services all by itself.

The airport is used mostly by medevac, which is a service for the whole district.

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