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New Manitoulin airport terminal construction set for spring groundbreaking

Sky's the limit as air traffic at Gore Bay-area facility reaches highest mark in more than a quarter-century

An ongoing global pandemic coupled with sky-high inflation would be more than enough reason to scuttle construction plans for a new terminal building at the Gore Bay-Manitoulin Airport.

But Robert Colwell is still optimistic the long-planned-for $4.2-million project will get underway in 2022.

“We realize there's some increased costs due to inflation and there's also some supply issues, so these are some of the challenges that we are currently trying to overcome,” said Colwell, who manages the airport located on the west end of Manitoulin Island.

“We're still marching on and hoping we can be ready some time this year. Ideally, it would be spring to commence the build.”

Announced two years ago, the project includes constructing a new terminal building, widening and lengthening a secondary runway, installing a helipad, and upgrading the electrical system to allow the airport to function in the event of a wide-scale power interruption.

Of the cost, the federal and provincial governments are providing $3,966,497 for the project, while the western Manitoulin communities of Gore Bay, Gordon/Barrie Island, and Burpee and Mills will together contribute $282,473.

The project reached its first major benchmark last November when the airport board awarded the design contract to Exp, an international engineering, architecture, design, and consulting firm with an office in Sudbury. Exp will oversee the design process, issue the construction tender, and manage the build.

Some preliminary work has already been done.

“All of the geotechnical work has been completed, and the survey work has been completed,” Colwell said.

“We are currently working with Exp and Perry + Perry Architects to refine a design of our terminal building.”

The board's leading requirement for the building's design, which hasn't yet been finalized, is that it complements the airport's natural surroundings.

Situated on 1,324 acres of land, the facility is bordered on two sides by the North Channel of Lake Huron and surrounded by fields of wildflowers, a setting Colwell called “quite scenic.”

That's why the board has landed on a classic look that eschews brushed stainless steel, black leather furnishings, and other hallmarks of more contemporary schemes.

“We went with a more traditional design where we all feel it's an architectural piece that fits with the Manitoulin surroundings and environment,” Colwell said.

“That gives us a direction that we can focus on and a design that may not be ultra modern, but we feel that it's going to look like it has a Manitoulin statement to it.”

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Once the build gets underway, a holding tank will be installed to divert septic flow from the existing building, but otherwise airport operations won't be greatly impacted, he noted. 

Upon completion, the airport will undergo a rebranding exercise, expanding its name to the Gore Bay-Manitoulin Regional Airport, a reflection of its growing role as an aviation hub serving Manitoulin and the North Shore.

In the years since Colwell has helmed operations, airport activity has more than doubled.

For the first two decades of his 26-year tenure, traffic "flatlined” at around 2,000 movements per year, he noted.

In 2020, activity spiked to about 3,800 movements annually, and in 2021, that number jumped again to 4,400 movements per year — the highest tally in a quarter-century. 

Colwell attributed most of the activity to the Gore Bay Flying Club, which has welcomed dozens of eager new pilots to its ranks since starting up in 2017.

But, through the pandemic, there's also been a steady stream of visitors from more urban areas, like Toronto, Hamilton and Ottawa, looking for a peaceful place where they can either take a much-needed vacation or work remotely, away from more crowded centres.

“I think our airport, and the island, is on a lot of people's radars right now,” Colwell said.

Post-pandemic, when the Canadian Border Service Agency (CBSA) port is once again open to American flyers, and corporate clients like Gore Bay-headquartered Manitoulin Transport take to the skies again, he anticipates traffic could pick up further.

“Once we're past COVID and that activity resumes, then our numbers should be strong.” 

If there’s one disappointment for Colwell, it’s that the refurbishment project likely won't be completed in time to dovetail with the airport's 75th anniversary this year.

Opened in 1947, the facility has hosted its fair share of historical events, including celebrity visits by Gene Autry, the American crooner and actor better known as the “Singing Cowboy”, and former prime minister Pierre Elliot Trudeau.

Many of these memories are preserved in photographs and other ephemera that's been gathered into Colwell's personal collection of airport memorabilia, which he hopes, at some point, to fashion into some kind of celebratory display.

In the meantime, he's already working on additional airport projects — building more hangars, and attracting aircraft maintenance and flight training services — to capitalize on the airport's momentum.

“I'm quite confident that once we get all the enhancements in place, that will fuel the fire of increased activity,” he said.

“As I've said to my board, brace for the future, because I'm just getting warmed up.”