Original Published on Jul 22, 2022 at 13:21

By Sean Oliver, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

Over the past year, the MD of Pincher Creek, Municipality of Crowsnest Pass and Town of Pincher Creek have collaborated on a master plan to develop the airport for more commercial travel, which would contribute to the tourism and industrial potential of the region.

The Village of Cowley has joined Crowsnest Pass and the MD of Pincher Creek in forming a regional airport committee to maintain current services at the airport and investigate potential developments. Once finalized, the committee would operate as a non-profit municipal corporation.

Pincher Creek town council informed its municipal partners last month that it would not be participating in moving ahead with the committee’s incorporation. Council’s main reservation, says Mayor Don Anderberg, was the lack of a solid business plan.

“I like to know when we’re committing to a project and committing funds what the business plan looks like,” he says. “We asked our questions and didn’t get the information that we needed to make a comfortable decision. There seems to be a lot of stuff up in the air there.”

Though acknowledging business plans are speculative in nature, the mayor says the lack of information on the airport’s current revenue and expenses made council wary of putting town taxpayers on the hook for potentially large capital costs.

“We’re not opposed to the airport and working for upgrades and making it a more viable place, but what we saw for a go-forward plan really didn’t excite us that much,” Anderberg says.

Other municipal partners on the committee, however, feel the town’s withdrawal is premature because the results from the regional study have not been returned.

“We all got together and put some money to get a study and we haven’t got the result of that yet,” says MD of Pincher Creek Reeve Rick Lemire, one of the MD’s airport committee reps.

“I don’t know why the town said it wasn’t workable because we don’t have it yet. I don’t know where that’s coming from.”

Bowing out due to an incomplete business plan, he adds, is putting the cart before the horse because, once formed, the committee would finalize the plan with the help of the completed study.

“The business plan could be we rent it out, or it could be we come in with an authority like the County and City of Lethbridge and we try to promote it,” Lemire continues. “There’s lots of grants out there, we just have to decide where we’re going with it.”

Interest was renewed in the airport a few years ago when a child from Crowsnest Pass required an emergency airlift; STARS was unable to assist, so an airplane was dispatched but couldn’t land at the airport due to snowdrifts.

Maintaining the airport to be available in such emergencies is the main goal of the airport committee, says Crowsnest Pass representative Coun. Glen Girhiny.

“We appreciate the fact that it’s being used for a fire bomber base,” he says. “It’s being used for emergency extracts. We have to keep it open.”

Girhiny also says the town’s decision to withdraw over budgetary concerns was too hasty since large-scale growth and development is way down the road.

“I don’t think the taxpayers want to see a Lethbridge airport in Pincher Creek, but we appreciate the fact that it’s there. We’re not anywhere close to building a terminal there,” he continues.

“The idea from our perspective wasn’t more than ‘Let’s just agree to keep it open and we can formulate the structure of this new board once we know that everyone wants to play in the same sandbox.’ ”

Given the importance of the airport in an emergency, having all the municipalities contribute takes the financial burden off the MD, Girhiny adds.

“I guess it all depends on how much you value that airport. I’m guessing that people who flew out on air ambulance were happy it was there. I’m sure there were lots of ranchers that were grateful it was there during grass fires,” he says.

“NoNot one MD should be burdened with that because there’s not enough usage there, but it’s sure nice to have it when you need it.”

Emergencies aside, the potential to expand is a real possibility due to increasing interest in outdoor tourism in the area, says Reeve Lemire. In fact, a helicopter tour company recently toured the airport and expressed interest in expanding their operations in this corner of the province.

“There’s a lot of interest in that airport,” Lemire says. “It doesn’t matter if the town’s in it or not, they’re going to benefit from it — there’s going to be an economic benefit from it.”

Pincher Creek representative Coun. Mark Barber says that while there could be much to gain from expanding airport services, the economic risk for town taxpayers isn’t justified with the information available.

“They say ‘Build it and they will come’ — but that doesn’t necessarily always happen,” he says.

Though backing away from a full-time commitment, the town is willing to help with maintenance costs such as lights and snow removal.

“I don’t mind being on board with that,” Barber says.

And depending on what information comes forward in the finalized study, town council could happily reconsider its position, says Mayor Anderberg. 

“We’re amenable to keep talking and come back to the table,” he says. “We’re not shutting the door, but the form it’s in right now isn’t amenable to us.”

The joint airport committee meets quarterly, though the next meeting has not been scheduled.

This item reprinted with permission from Shootin’ the Breeze, Pincher Creek, Alberta