After voting to create a new annual grant program, Simcoe County council immediately awarded this year's balance to a Montreal company.
Councillors voted in favour on Tuesday morning of establishing the Lake Simcoe Regional Airport (LSRA) Aerospace Development Fund, a new grant program intended to draw new private-sector investment and drive innovation at the Oro-Medonte Township airport, which is located halfway between Barrie and Orillia.
County council's next move was to give the full $100,000 allocated for the fund in 2021 to Volatus Aerospace for their plan to establish a new Volatus Aerospace Centre of Excellence at the Line 7 airport.
“My initial concern is developing a grant and not having anyone else have the opportunity to apply because we’ve depleted this year’s $100,000 contribution in the 30 seconds after we approve the allocation of funds,” said Tiny Township Deputy Mayor Steffen Walma, who clarified he was still in support of the starting the grant program and the allocation.
Springwater Township Deputy Mayor Jennifer Coughlin said she would support the program and the allocation, but had concerns about the way it came together.
“It seems fast. It seems pushed. It seems there’s a lot of urgency in it,” Coughlin said. “It feels wrong. It feels like it’s sole-sourced; an opportunity not given to everyone. I look to the experience of my fellow county councillors, but it doesn’t sit well with me.
"It doesn’t look like it’s been as transparent as we typically are at this council," she added.
According to county staff, a quick decision was required.
“We’ve been working with the interested party, which is currently located in Quebec. They’re on a decision point about coming to Simcoe, so this is a time-sensitive matter,” said Rob Elliott, the county's general manager of engineering, planning and environment. “(They’re deciding) between expanding their operations in Quebec, or coming (here).
“This will offer an incentive for others to be attracted to the airport,” he added.
The county's three-year funding program will award $100,000 yearly to qualified aerospace companies who choose to locate at the LSRA.
According to their application, Volatus Aerospace says it intends to make a $1.42-million investment to lease and retrofit an existing 32,000-square-foot hangar at the airport for their operations. The company also anticipates 17 to 20 full-time jobs will be created through the investment in its first year.
Volatus would perform assembly/integration of drone components and systems integration, along with research and development and their manned aircraft business would operate as a charter service.
Volatus proposes to begin renovations on the hangar on April 1.
Bradford West Gwillimbury Deputy Mayor James Leduc said he thought it was a great opportunity and wondered if the county should be putting more funding toward the grant program.
“Big business moves fast. The aerospace industry is in flux right now because of what’s happened with the pandemic,” he said.
Severn Township Deputy Mayor Jane Dunlop and Wasaga Beach Mayor Nina Bifolchi both also shared concerns about the way the program came together. Bifolchi asked if the Lake Simcoe Regional Airport board was part of the discussions with Volatus.
“We did not specifically involve the board in any discussions. However, the airport manager has been working with Volatus on other opportunities to help land this,” said Elliott.
“It’s not quite a normal process here at county council, but it’s also not a normal opportunity,” said Simcoe County Warden George Cornell. “It’s a very exciting opportunity that came to us, and I hope council can be nimble enough to respond to it. I congratulate staff on the work they’ve done to bring this together.”
Following the meeting, Cornell shed more light on what led up to the items being put on this week’s agenda. He said conversations had been taking place for a little less than a month between the county and Volatus, and county staff from the economic development department, himself and chief administrative officer Mark Aitken participated in those talks.
“(Volatus) needed a decision ASAP because of other conditional commitments they had made. We’ve been talking to a few potential investors for the airport and we’ve been thinking for a while now about what we could do to offer up an incentive for this sector,” said Cornell. “It’s for the benefit of our residents, the county and the airport.”
On Tuesday morning, councillors voted in favour of establishing the Lake Simcoe Regional Airport (LSRA) Aerospace Development Fund. They also voted in favour of awarding Volatus with the 2021 allocation of $100,000.