As manager of the Manitoulin East Municipal Airport, George Dobbs wears a number of hats: caretaker, ground crew, welcoming committee.
This summer he also took on the role of construction crew, as he climbed aboard a bulldozer to level out what will one day be a new east-west runway.
“I scraped the whole 2,000 feet of runway myself—most fun I had all summer,” Dobbs laughed. “I didn’t want to see that (bulldozer) leave; I could have played with that for another year.”
Full development of the landing strip is still some time away. Dobbs estimated only 40 per cent of the work is complete, but the addition of a second runway, which would complement the 3,500-foot, north-south airstrip, is one of several initiatives the small community airport is undertaking to maintain viability in an increasingly volatile industry.
Amenities include the terminal, a maintenance garage and water plant, as well as a 1,600-square-foot industrial unit, 3,600-square feet of commercial hangars, 10,880-square feet of T-hangars and 6,000-square feet of private hangars.
“We’re very proud of the airport, and the fact that it’s two municipalities makes it even more interesting because we work very well together,” said Marcel Gauthier, airport commission chair and NEMI councillor.
Despite that collaboration, the airport has struggled to remain viable year-round, so much so that NEMI Mayor Joe Chapman recently suggested closing the facility during the off-season to save on hydro, water, wages and snow removal.
But the airport’s certification means the facility must remain open year-round for use by air ambulance crews to ferry trauma patients to larger centres like Sudbury and Toronto. Search and rescue and hydro crews also frequent the airport for refuelling.
“If they have to go a long ways to get fuel, it really undermines and devalues the effectiveness of their mission,” said Dobbs. “And they’ve told me that having this airport here with the jet fuel for their equipment when it’s needed is really important.”
After years of hauling water to the airport, a new water system for its nascent industrial park was installed in 2007.
Now certified as non-residential industrial, the airport has been trying to attract businesses to the park, which currently has one tenant and space for three more. Dobbs wants to lure businesses specializing in aviation and avionics, but would welcome anyone.
The blueprints call for an industrial building of multiple units with shared washroom and kitchen facilities to make the best use of the limited water and septic capacity.
Said Dobbs, “As far as revenues go, I think that is one of the best bets we have, because those units generate about five times the monthly revenue that a hangar generates, because they’re a finished building and you have a business in it operating.”
Also in the works is a solar project earmarked for the southwest corner. Provincial approvals are pending, but Dobbs estimates a solar field could generate $20,000 in annual revenue.
The Island hasn’t been immune to the downturn in the economy, and as fuel prices skyrocket, Dobbs has seen a marked decrease in the number of tourists piloting their own aircraft into their camps. Other ventures—a flight school and scheduled service—have failed, leaving the airport to become increasingly creative in its approach to sustainability.
“At this point with the population we have on the Island—and that will change because Muskoka’s getting filled up and we’re going to get an overflow in this area—you can’t have those kinds of services supported by the small population that we have 10 months of the year,” Dobbs said.