In aviation terms, Red Deer Regional Airport’s engines are running and it’s ready for takeoff.
All that are needed now are investors as convinced as CEO Graham Ingham of the Springbrook airport’s potential as a base for air freight firms and other aviation-related businesses.
The airport has been aggressively marketing itself for some time. Ontario-based Rice Group is managing the north end land development project, which includes nearly 200 acres of prime property adjacent to the runway.
“That’s really where the future of the airport lies,” said Graham.
“That represents about $2.4 million in lease revenue to the airport. And that pales in comparison to the jobs it would create, the economic diversification, the additional tax revenue and all of those types of things that are really important to the community.
“That’s the future of the airport. That would make a huge economic impact, to not only Red Deer, but to central Alberta as well.
“It falls nicely in line with our vision of being the aviation gateway and key economic driver for central Alberta.”
The focus is on attracting large-scale cargo, aviation maintenance, repair and overhaul facilities and logistics-related companies, he said.
Luring those kinds of firms will mean embarking on what he calls a “fairly aggressive and comprehensive airport expansion.
“In order to accommodate aircraft like 767s, which are considerably heavier, we would need to widen as well as strengthen the existing runway,” he said.
Taxiway upgrades, including approach lighting, would also be part of the project, which could cost an estimated $30 million.
It follows other upgrades, including a $9.5-million project in 2016 to lengthen the runway to 7,500 feet, which was bankrolled by the City of Red Deer, Red Deer County and the provincial government.
Another $2.6-million runway refurbishment project is expected to begin this spring.
The $30-million price tag for an even more ambitious overhaul is a big number, Ingham admits.
But if looked at from a rate-of-return perspective, Ingham is convinced it is an investment that will pay off.
With $2 million in annual lease revenue, a 15-year rate of return could be realized, he said. Add in other revenues from fuel levies and landing fees, and that return gets even better.
“Add those on, you’re probably looking at a return on investment around the 10-year mark, which is incredible for a project of that size.”
Red Deer County provided $350,000 for the engineering, design and cost estimate work to lay the groundwork for the project.
“We’re hoping that work will be completed by mid-June. That puts us in a position so if we do have an opportunity that comes along, we’re tender ready and we know exactly what the costs are going to be.
“That gets the airport really ready to capitalize on the north-end land project.”
It also provides the same ability to respond quickly should government grants become available in post-pandemic efforts to restart the Canadian economy.
At the other end of the airport lies 10 acres managed by Calgary-based Executive Flight Centre Developments. That effort is focused on retail and commercial investment, such as gas stations and strip malls, with the kinds of tenants those typically attract, such as Subway-style eateries.
Red Deer County recently approved rezoning changes to allow a gas station and convenience store development, which is likely on hold until 2021 now, because of the pandemic and Alberta’s hard-hit economy.
Zoning was also changed to allow for a car dealership, an initiative being explored by one of the airport’s current tenants.
On the west side of the airport, a solar power project is moving forward. Saturn Power is looking at a project generating six to 14 megawatts of electricity on about 70 acres of leased airport land.
The project will provide about $40,000 a year in revenue for the airport.
As far as scheduled passenger service, central Albertans will have to be patient, said Ingham.
The airport has signed a letter of intent with a Calgary-based small charter airline, but it is waiting for conditions to improve before going ahead with any expansion to Red Deer.
“We are very, very confident we’re going to get passenger service back,” Ingham said. “But it’s greater than two years (away) for sure, and it’s all about finding the right partnership.
“Our short-term priority is growing the charter business,” he said.
Tucana Aviation, which signed a five-year deal to operate the airport, will be a big part of that effort that has already been given a boost with the renovation of the terminal building.