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Manitoulin Island airport to enter the modern age

New terminal in the works as Gore Bay airport embarks on $4.2-million infrastructure upgrading project for 2021

Other than a handful of cosmetic upgrades – new carpet, more efficient windows, a fresh coat of paint – the terminal building today at the Gore Bay-Manitoulin Airport remains largely unchanged from the day it was built in 1947.

But with so many advancements in airport infrastructure since the post-war era, airport manager Robert Colwell believes the complex is long overdue for a complete overhaul.

“We need to move on and get into a new facility that will provide opportunities for us for growth, and this old building has become the limiting factor."

More than two decades after he started his tenure at the airport, Colwell is getting his wish.

A modern, new terminal building will be at the centre of a $4.2-million redevelopment project, which will include the widening and lengthening of the secondary runway, the installation of a helipad, and the upgrading of the electrical system to allow the airport to function in the event of a wide-scale power interruption.

In July, the federal and provincial governments confirmed their combined commitment of $3,966,497 for the project. The communities of Gore Bay, Gordon/Barrie Island, and Burpee and Mills will together contribute $282,473.

It’s a hefty undertaking for the facility, which sits on 1,324 acres at the west end of Manitoulin Island, in the Township of Gordon/Barrie Island, bordered on two sides by the waters of Lake Huron’s Georgian Bay.

Sparsely populated Manitoulin has a little more than 13,200 permanent residents, but come summertime, those numbers swell as tourists and camp owners flock to the area for vacationing opportunities.

“I’m hearing, more now than ever, people are coming in and looking at Manitoulin as a safe haven: low population density, fresh air, fresh water, relaxed lifestyle, and fairly reasonably priced properties,” Colwell said.

“We have a lot of things going for us as a foundation to build on, and a terminal building will just be another step.”

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The old building, which has a bomb shelter built into the basement, will be razed, and the new terminal will come in at just under 5,000 square feet – four times as large as the current structure.

The focal point of the facility will be a bright, spacious lounge with broad airside views, a customer service and operations centre, and upgraded, barrier-free washrooms, Colwell said.

A fatigue management lounge will give pilots a quiet area to rest and plan in between flights, while a large multi-purpose room will be equipped with a food services area so meetings and events can be held there through the year.

Plans also include an improved Canadian Border Services Agency office for the port of entry.

Outside, the secondary runway will be widened to 75 feet and lengthened to 3,500 feet, with a turning bay at the north end, which Colwell said would accommodate twin piston and turbo-prop operations.

That complements work done in 2010 to pave and extend the main runway to 5,500 feet from 4,900 feet, which has allowed the airport to serve larger aircraft.

The addition of a helipad will help limit congestion on the existing apron, and upgrades to the field electrical centre will result in better airfield lighting, more reliability, and a greater capacity for the emergency power unit.

With all these new features, the airport will be able to serve as an emergency crisis management centre in the case of a large-scale disaster.

Before COVID-19 sucked the air out of its wings, the Gore Bay-Manitoulin Airport was enjoying an extended period of growth.

Unlike its Northern Ontario counterparts, the airport’s revenues aren’t reliant on scheduled air service from Porter, Air Canada or Bearskin Airlines, Colwell said.

Instead, as a general aviation provider, the Gordon/Barrie Island facility bolsters its coffers through a mix of corporate business – neighbouring Manitoulin Transport parks its corporate jet here – charter flights, and private use.

Establishing the Gore Bay Flying Club in 2017 fuelled local interest in aviation and the corresponding uptick in those taking private flying lessons, Colwell said. To date, the local flight instructor has graduated six pilots, and there are more in the pipeline.

“There are all these feeders that have really caused a trend of growth for the airport,” he said.

Construction of the new terminal is still in the early stages.

The airport board has commissioned preliminary drawings from local engineer Ian Whittington and is currently in the process of vetting companies to guide them through the request for proposals (RFP) process.

Colwell estimated the tender documents will be readied over the winter months, and the goal is for construction to start next year, with multiple projects going on simultaneously.

“We can be building the terminal building, we can be doing upgrades to our field electrical and our emergency power, and extending the crosswind runway,” Colwell said.

The board has until 2026 to use the funding.

Though shovels aren’t yet in the ground, the airport manager is already thinking about future projects.

Included on his revised wish list are a new fuel system, an aircraft maintenance base, a flight training school, and new hangars.

Even scheduled air service could become a possibility at some point down the road if airport activity continues to grow, said Colwell, a pilot and trained aircraft maintenance engineer.

“I think when it’s finished, you will be hard pressed to find a nicer, more functional small terminal airport building anyplace,” Colwell said. “And that’s kind of my objective.”