British Columbia Community Backs Runway Project to Keep Local Airport Operating

British Columbia Community Backs Runway Project to Keep Local Airport Operating
Paul Nolan
Published in: 

It’s often said that you don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone. Well, residents in and around a small town in southeastern British Columbia didn’t let it come to that when the survival of their community airport was at stake.

Golden Municipal Airport (YGE), which is owned, operated and funded by its namesake town, does not support scheduled passenger service. It does, however, serve the residents of Golden and the surrounding Columbia Shuswap Regional District (approximate population: 6,900) by providing air access to the popular tourist area via private aircraft. It also regularly facilitates crucial air ambulance operations, wildfire suppression efforts, search and rescue missions, and emergency management efforts after natural disasters. Occasionally, it supports military exercises by Canadian Armed Forces based in Edmonton.

Faced with the need for significant repairs at YGE—most urgently, the milling and repaving of its sole runway—local officials enlisted HM Aero Aviation Consulting, an Ontario-based company, to complete an economic viability study. The report assessed current and future operating costs, current and future business opportunities, and the condition of airport infrastructure, with estimates for immediate and long-range maintenance and repair costs.


Project: Runway Rehabilitation

Location: Golden Municipal Airport —BC, Canada

Airport Owner/Operator: Town of Golden

Scope: Mill distressed areas & repave entire 4,528-foot runway with polymer-modified asphalt

Cost: $2.7 million

Funding: $2 million from British Columbia Air Access Program; $120,000 grant from federal COVID-stimulus Regional Air Transportation Initiative; funds from Town of Golden & Columbia Shuswap Regional District

Construction: October 2023

Airport Viability Study: HM Aero Aviation Consulting

Engineering & Contract Administrator:
HM Aero Aviation Consulting

Geotechnical Engineering: Englobe

Contractor: Okanagan Aggregates

Paint Markings: Marshall Lines

Aerial Photography: In Flight Robotics

Key Benefits: Extend life of sole runway; enhance safety

Currently, the airport has nine tenants. They include two helicopter charters that support tourism, aerial work, wildfire suppression and search/rescue operations; a skydiving operator; a fixed-wing sightseeing operator; a search and rescue organization; a company that sells fuel to based and visiting aircraft; and a NAV Canada partner that provides weather observation and reporting services.

Assessing the Options

Using combinations of aviation and non-aviation opportunities for development and revenue generation, HM Aero landed on three potential options for moving forward:

  • Full closure and redevelopment of the airport – The property could be offered for sale and redeveloped based on the highest price and best use, unrelated to aviation.
  • Closing the runway and restricting airfield use to rotary-wing operations only – The balance of the property could then be redeveloped for non-aviation purposes.
  • Maintaining current operation levels – The airport would continue to be owned and operated by the town and available to fixed-wing and rotary-wing aircraft.

“While it’s totally intuitive for us to think having an airport is a great thing, it must be measured against our ability to actually maintain it over the long-term,” Mayor Ron Oszust told the local newspaper in 2020 when the viability study was initiated.

Supplements from the town of Golden and Columbia Shuswap Regional District cover the funding gap for YGE. For instance, operating expenses were about $104,000 in 2022, while total operating revenue was slightly less than $33,200 in 2019.

Beyond objective financial statistics like that, the viability report HM Aero created notes that the success of many regional airports in Canada is measured not in the profit they generate, but by their financial sustainability and socioeconomic benefits. “The goal of most airports is to be financially self-sufficient and therefore not require grants or subsidies from the communities they serve,” the report states. “However, this can prove to be difficult for many municipal and regional governments when capital rehabilitation efforts are required and funding requirements extend beyond annual airport operating budgets.

“Golden Airport’s financial performance is considered to be good and similar to that of other municipally owned airports in Canada that successfully fulfill the socioeconomic needs of their region.”

Faced with more than $2.5 million of runway work just to keep YGE operating, the Golden Town Council had to determine if the project, and airport itself, was a cost the community could bear. Clearly, it would need to receive sizable outside funding, as the town’s total annual tax revenue is about $6 million.

Construction occurred last fall to avoid the summer tourist season.

Gauging Community Sentiment

Deciding the future of YGE was not something the Town Council wanted to do in a vacuum. So it charged HM Aero with taking the community’s pulse about continuing to fund operation of the airport, which was built in the 1980s by volunteers.

“The vast majority of citizens of Golden—the taxpayers—never use the airport, but they are responsible for funding it. We felt we had to go out to the public for feedback,” explains Jon Wilsgard, the town’s chief administrative officer.

To do so, the project team held a public information session in June 2020. The format was a video teleconference due to COVID-19, and 92 people registered to participate. Ultimately, 62 individuals joined the Zoom call, and approximately 50 questions and comments were addressed during the virtual gathering.

In addition, online surveys were posted for three months. A total of 634 individuals and businesses provided feedback—the most response to any community issue in Golden’s history, notes Wilsgard. Top respondents to the business survey included organization in the tourism sector (40%), followed by professional services (19%), transportation (16%) and retail (6%). Other respondents were from the construction sector, flight training, aerial photography, healthcare and not-for-profit organizations.

“It was not only our citizens who engaged, but people from across the country,” Wilsgard adds. “We had people who represented aviation associations, pilot associations and businesses essentially saying that this is too important of an airport to let go.”

Vocal proponents of keeping the airport fully operational included Don Bell, a local homeowner and cofounder of West Jet, Canada’s second-largest airline.

“The community was overwhelmingly in favor of keeping it,” Wilsgard shares. “What people understood, especially when we started releasing statistics about medical evacuations, was the inherent social value of the airport was large enough unto itself to justify repairing and maintaining it.

“There was also an underlying sentiment that an airport is an economic benefit that maybe we weren’t realizing now, but one day would. And to lose it would be a tragedy.”

The community’s interest in saving the airport impressed personnel from HM Aero.

“We work with a lot of smaller community airports, and the level of positive reception we saw in Golden is atypical,” says Ben Crooks, a project planner at the consulting company. “The Golden community’s knowledge of the fire protection and medical evacuation use of their airport gave them a better grasp of its importance.”

HM Aero presented its final economic viability report about YGE to the Town Council in October 2020. With broad support from the community to keep the airport fully functional, the Town Council voted unanimously to complete the pressing runway repairs. The hope was to also repave two taxiways and three aprons, if the budget would allow.

Securing Funds

“We had never faced this sort of capital expenditure for the airport before,” Wilsgard remarks. “If you’re going to get grants for this sort of project in this day and age, you need to do your homework. You need something that backs up why you’re applying for funding.”

The project team again turned to HM Aero—this time for a strategic and tactical plan. In 2021, the town and its consultant successfully secured $120,000 in funding through the federal COVID-stimulus Regional Air Transportation Initiative. This grant covered the costs of a topographic survey, geotechnical investigation and detailed engineering design.

In late 2022, the province announced significant increases to the funds available through the British Columbia Air Access Program (BCAAP). The town and HM Aero collaborated on a grant funding application and secured $2 million (the maximum available through the program) toward the runway rehabilitation that was estimated to cost $2.7 million. The town and Columbia Shuswap Regional District provided the balance of needed capital funds.

“We were told by the BCAAP adjudication team that they had never seen a better application in the program’s history,” Wilsgard reports. “The thoroughness and the story that HM Aero helped us tell was some of the most comprehensive storytelling they had ever seen.”

Crooks and other team members from HM Aero were encouraged by the massive groundswell of support from the community throughout the project. “It motivates you to really swing for the fences and get them the win they need,” he reflects. “Golden’s story spoke for itself. We didn’t have to stretch things to make the application a strong one.”



Getting to Work

HM Aero had the project ready to tender shortly after BCAAP awarded the airport a $2 million grant last April. The job was awarded to Okanagan Aggregates out of Armstrong, BC. Because costs had increased since the strategic plan was completed, there was only enough money to repave the entire 4,500-foot-long, 75-foot-wide runway and two taxiways up to the hold short lines. Other taxiway and apron areas would have to wait.

From a project-timing standpoint, it was important for YGE to remain fully operational throughout summer, when use of its runway peaks for flights tied to tourism, skydiving and other adventure recreation. Summer is also high season for wildfires, and the airport is an essential component for firefighting efforts.

That meant bumping the milling and repaving work to October, which introduced a challenge since autumn temperatures in Golden often dip below the 41 F minimum required for contractors to lay the polymer-modified asphalt that engineers specified. But the weather cooperated, and crews finished by the end of October.

Apron repairs will be completed when funding is available, notes Wilsgard. HM Aero’s strategic plan provides a 10-year action plan that includes capital rehabilitation recommendations and ideas to create new revenue streams. One possible investment is building private aircraft hangars to attract charter operators and other aircraft service providers.

“A lot of towns will take a plan like the one we created and let it sit on the shelf,” Crooks says. “A lot of credit goes to Jon [Wilsgard] and the Town Council to keep this moving forward.”

For Wilsgard, maintaining enthusiasm for the airport project was easy.

“In my 17 years, this was the most gratifying and fantastic community process and success that I’ve been through,” he reflects. “It was objectively and emotionally satisfying to see a community come together and also get support from across the nation to ensure that what we had here was going to stay. The universal statement of its importance was fantastic. From where we started in 2019—actually pondering whether we were going to keep this thing—to getting the money to repave it was the ultimate closing of the loop.”

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