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Entrepreneurial Community of the Year: Air Base Property Corporation

"Without his relentless determination, Air Base would never have gotten off the ground."

The creation of North Bay's aerospace industry can be attributed to a determined bunch of civic-minded citizens who wouldn't stand for a take-it-or-leave-it attitude from Ottawa.

When the last of four former military hangars at Jack Garland Airport is sold to an aviation company sometime this fall, the Air Base Property Corporation (ABPC) will officially fold up its shop.

Though ABPC Chairman Dave Butti may hate giving up his lavish $2 a year salary, he, like many others in the all-volunteer group were not in it for the money, nor any public accolades, but wanted to create jobs and make the city prosper.

"Our board has always felt what better way to encourage and promote growth opportunities for the city and it's inhabitants? We’re quite proud of our track record."

With anchor tenants like Voyageur Airways firmly in place, and Bombardier Aerospace assembling their CL-415 'Super Scooper' water bombers next door, the Aerospace Centre is a thriving, humming place.

But saving the former Canadian Forces Base hangars from demolition was no easy feat.

Formed in 1996 with appointees from the city, labour and the business community, the group faced down the Department of National Defence's (DND) plans to bulldoze the hangars and instead created a local industry that employs more than 300 people.

The private, non-profit group, which has no staff, no administration and runs a virtual office, has preferred to stay largely under the radar. They defer most of the public attention and back-slapping to their colourful former chairman Vic Fedeli, the current-day mayor of North Bay.

"Without his relentless determination, Air Base would never have gotten off the ground," says Butti the former marketing executive "The guy was just so committed. He laid the groundwork and we just carried the ball forward."

It became high drama to secure the airside assets as their dealings with DND became an ugly, vicious fight.

In the mid-1990s, North Bay was listed among a number of Canadian Forces bases slated for downsizing or closure. Community groups in Chatham, N.B.; Summerside, PEI; and Cornwallis, N.S.; were snapping up those former federal properties along with economic development cheques from Ottawa for as high as $15 million.

North Bay's case was different. While a federal working group spent months studying what should be done with the base, the installation sat idle and neglected. Inside the hangars, pipes had burst over a winter, a basement boiler room in one hangar was submerged under eight feet of water and roofs needed to be replaced.

The ABPC entered into negotiations with the feds for funding to repair and upgrade the facilities in lieu of the government having to spend the money to demolish the buildings.

Ottawa's offer was substantially less than anticipated and ABPC members discovered there was a hidden agenda to raze the entire airside installations.

'The bulldozers were parked right outside our window at all times," Fedeli told Northern Ontario Business in a 2001 interview. Even ABPC's office, in one of the administration buildings, was demolished with their files dumped on the lawn.

With talks going nowhere, ABPC's Board of Directors hit upon a revolutionary idea, to market the hangars to potential tenants for $1, but with covenants of creating employment, assuming all liability and paying the utilities and taxes.

With the hangars in disrepair, the air base group sued the federal government and won. Combined with funds from FedNor and the Northern Ontario Heritage Fund Corp., more than $2 million went into repairs to bring in new tenants.

Years later, that entrepreneurial mindset was applied again to an east-end city industrial park that sat vacant for 20 years.

Restrictions under the province’s Municipal Act didn't allow the city to provide incentives, such as offering special 'bonusing' incentives.

But ABPC was already a ready-made private development agency and purchased 26 acres from the city and sold it for $1 an acre. Eight acres were sold to mine builders Cementation Canada for a repair shop, with the rest parcelled off to Goodyear Canada for an 80,000-square-foot tire retreading plant.

The resulting construction activity has drawn other local manufacturers, like Atlas Copco, to build larger shops in the vicinity.

With their mandate completed, Butti and his directors are now preparing to wind up the corporation, likely this fall.

"Our Board says we've done our job," says Butti, in mentioning the contributions over the years of George Maroosis, Anthony Rota, Peter Minogue, Dave Doyle, Karen Taylor and Ray Carney. "We just felt it was time to go."

One of ABPC's last acts is providing support for a Near North School Board robotics team, a collection of smart and savvy students from six schools that compete in regional and international events.

The Air Base group has helped finance their annual trip to Atlanta, Georgia where the team has qualified for the last five years and where they compete against larger U.S. schools sponsored by corporations like Boeing.

"They have that underdog mentality," says Butti, "we kinda like those guys."