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Building an Ontario powerhouse

"If you build it, he will come.” The famous line in the 1989 baseball blockbuster Field of Dreams is the mystical message an Iowa farmer hears while alone in his cornfield.


January 10, 2014
By Stacy Bradshaw


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"If you build it, he will come.” The famous line in the 1989 baseball blockbuster Field of Dreams is the mystical message an Iowa farmer hears while alone in his cornfield, prompting him to interpret the “voice” as a command to plow under acres of prime farmland to build a pristine baseball field – all in the hopes of coaxing the infamous 1929 Chicago Black Sox to come and play ball again, led by his hero, the great Shoeless Joe Jackson.

The Peterborough Aerospace Centre  
The Peterborough Aerospace Centre hosts a vibrant aviation and aerospace industry. One of its key assets is the uncontrolled airspace. Photo: Peterborough Economic Development


 

It’s a magical yet farfetched premise, of course, a beautiful tale born in the creative mind of iconic Canadian author and baseball fanatic W.P. Kinsella. The underlining wisdom in the message, however, of taking a grand idea and crafting it into an entity full of promise and value is precisely what’s happening in the picturesque southern Ontario city of Peterborough, where an aviation-driven “Field of Dreams” is rapidly coming together in the form of an aerospace hub at the city’s municipal airport.

With a strong contingent of small- to medium-sized aviation-related businesses located at the Peterborough Municipal Airport, including the internationally respected and expanding completions, maintenance and overhaul firm, Flying Colours, and the newly added Seneca College flight school, the pieces are now in place for an escalation of the city’s aerospace footprint.

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Safran Electronics Canada, a prominent aerospace firm specializing in the development of sophisticated electronics for a number of fixed- and rotary-wing aircraft, and another key player in the aerospace equation, is also located in the city. Several small- to medium-sized aerospace entities form the basis of a developing aerospace cluster at the airport including Airtech Canada Aviation Services, Angels of Flight Canada, International Aircraft Support and Turbine Engine Sales, Kadex Aero Supply, Ontario Turbines, President Air Supply, Rapid Aircraft Repair Inc., Toronto Avionics, Transport Canada and Vector Air.

In an effort to further drive home the merits of the airport, and the city – located in close proximity to the Greater Toronto Area – the City of Peterborough and Peterborough Economic Development announced the formation of the Peterborough Aerospace Centre at the Aerospace Industries Association of Canada’s (AIAC) 2013 Canadian Aerospace Summit in Ottawa this past October.

Very much in its infancy, the vision of the centre is to become a nexus of aerospace excellence, business enablement and thought leadership that will provide continued, sustained and diversified economic growth throughout the Peterborough region. It’s a vision that is very much supported by the city’s municipal government. It also has the continued support of both the provincial and federal governments, which have each contributed funding in the past five years for aviation-related initiatives at the airport.

“The city of Peterborough, along with the provincial and federal governments, have invested well over $30 million to expand our airport infrastructure,” says Peterborough mayor Darryl Bennett. “We are continuing to upgrade over the next two years and are committed to providing the highest level of infrastructure and service to an exciting and growing industry for our region.”

The following are some of the major infrastructure enhancements made at airport since 2009 when the funding was first approved:

  • pavement strengthening of runway 09-27, including taxiways Alpha and Bravo and Apron 1
  • an extension of runway 09-27 of some 2,000 feet to a total of 7,000 feet, making it capable of supporting narrow-body aircraft such as the Boeing 737 and the Airbus 320 series
  • Taxiway Bravo and Alpha extensions and a new Apron II
  • enhanced lighting, signage and fencing
  • ISF funding to construct and maintain an operations building to house airport maintenance vehicles the addition of Seneca College’s School of Aviation and Flight Technology Program
  • a $9-million investment to relocate and pave the crosswind runway, add supporting taxiways and extend the Bravo taxiway
  • City council approval to locate the Holy Cross Catholic Secondary School Specialist High Skills Major Aviation and Aerospace program at the airport beginning in February 2014
  • Flying Colours’ 20,000-square-foot addition to one of its existing buildings, adding 10 to 15 new jobs at the airport (for more details, see “On the Fly,” page 8, Nov/Dec 2013)

With its central Ontario location, infrastructure improvements, affordable taxes, government support and strong community spirit, the Peterborough region has plenty to offer potential aerospace firms looking to expand their aerospace presence. In a word, it’s all about the value proposition, something Trent Gervais, airport manager at the Peterborough Municipal Airport, says Peterborough offers in spades.

“The thing we’ve got going for us is we have a very competitive situation when you start comparing the cost of some major centres,” Gervais says. “And as you know, in the aviation world, it comes down to the bottom line. There’s not a lot of fat in aviation, so it’s something that we’ve kept in mind every step of the way, that we need to situate ourselves to be ready for growth and be able to compete. We’ve built the infrastructure now, we just need to promote it and try to attract businesses to Peterborough. And it’s not just the businesses, either, but we also have colleges and universities here. That grassroots involvement is key.”


Finding a new home

Grassroots support from educational institutions in the establishment of a successful aerospace cluster is critical and the addition of Seneca College’s School of Aviation and Flight Technology program goes a long way in making the development of a significant Peterborough aerospace cluster dream a reality.

Safran Electronics Canada  
Safran Electronics Canada develops, produces and supports embedded computers and systems for aerospace applications. Photo: Peterborough Economic Development


 

Crammed into three hangars at the Buttonville Airport for years and facing the impending closure of the Markham, Ont.-based city centre airport – not to mention having to deal with significant logistical space and organizational issues – finding a new location for the school’s aviation technology program faced the significant challenge of finding a new location.

In 2010, the college hired a consulting firm to seek an appropriate relocation solution. It was a comprehensive search, targeting as many options as possible from Brampton to the west, St. Catharines to the south and Peterborough to the east. In April 2012, Seneca’s Board of Governors approved the relocation of all flight-training activities to the Peterborough Municipal Airport. Classes are slated to begin in the new facility in Peterborough in January.

“We told them to look at everything,” says Lynne McMullen, aviation chair at Seneca College. “The decision on Buttonville was made, so we started doing field trips, as I called them, out to see various places. When I got to Peterborough and listened to them speak about everything they had been doing at the airport, it was impressive. They walked us around, we met representatives from the city and the airport, and it was the first time I really felt like this is where I want to be.”

It may sound like a cliché, McMullen says, but the people principle and the commitment they showed to the region, airport and community, understanding how it all works together as an economic driver for the region, helped solidify the decision to move the school down the 401 and up Highway 35 to a new home.

The school’s state-of-the-art campus will be the base for students in years two through four of the Bachelor of Aviation Technology program. The campus includes a main hangar to hold 13 aircraft; a maintenance hangar to hold three aircraft; two academic classrooms; active learning spaces; an aircraft cold storage facility; flight briefing rooms; simulator training rooms; a student lounge and more. Seneca and the city of Peterborough are overseeing the construction of the new campus.

“The clincher really was the people . . . they truly care about their airport,” McMullen says. “They understand and believe in the benefits of it. It’s a community atmosphere . . . and they clearly want to bring aviation education as part of it. They also have the support from all levels of government with infrastructure development and plenty of people with great ideas.”

As the head of one of the Canada’s most respected aviation programs, McMullen is a huge proponent of marrying educational opportunities with industry involvement. Seneca’s new location in Peterborough is ideal for fostering grassroots relationships on a variety of levels. With an internationally renowned business in Flying Colours and other key aviation firms at the airport, opportunities for partnerships, co-op positions and private programs at both the high school and college level abound.

“When we bring in guest speakers to the classroom, it provides students with a practical application of why they are learning what they are learning,” McMullen says. “We don’t get the kids to just focus on becoming a pilot one day. We want them to be a well-rounded person – to create future leaders and managers. To fulfil that goal, we need to bring people in from industry; it adds credibility to what we are teaching in the classroom.”


Promoting the credibility factor

Enhancing the city as an emerging aerospace entity is one of the main goals of the newly formed Peterborough Aerospace Centre. Keith Gladstone and Dan Taylor of Peterborough Economic Development are the driving forces behind the project and both are confident that the region’s many attributes, central location, support from all three levels of government and growing aerospace base will attract more partners to the city.

Seneca College  
Seneca College is the newest addition to the Peterborough Municipal Airport, giving the city’s aerospace footprint a strong educational component. Photo credit: Seneca College


 

“When Dan asked me to come down and talk to him and take a look at the airport, I was actually not sure what I was going to find, having been to a lot of small airports,” says Gladstone, who has more than 35 years "experience in the aviation industry in a variety of military and civilian aerospace roles. He set up his own consulting business, Gladstone Aerospace Corp., in 2005 and is working diligently to help the Peterborough region realize its aerospace vision.

“I was actually awed by the progress and the amount of effort, the amount of construction that had gone into the airport to renew it,” Gladstone told Wings. “I thought, this is an incredible asset, especially given its location. And it became apparent to me that whether or not the people who got the funding realized Peterborough’s strategic location between Ottawa, Montreal and Toronto, or whether it was just luck – who knows – but the fundamental fact is it is strategically located, it has all the advantages of being close to major centres, without having any of the baggage associated with being within those centres – high taxation, traffic, high volume air space, and controlled air space.”

And while Gladstone realizes the newly formed Peterborough Aerospace Centre is very much in its developing stages, he is confident the right strategies will prompt new businesses to join the likes of Flying Colours and Seneca College in this picturesque Ontario town. The community truly has so much to offer.

“It’s one thing to have a good offering and a good value proposition,” Gladstone told Wings, but how are you going to go about making this a good value proposition so they will invest or to participate to any extent?” The answer, he notes, is asking companies not to invest in Peterborough per se, but instead to invest in their own individual companies – and to realize how the value of the Peterborough model can help transform their operation. The Peterborough Economic Development team has also come up with three pillars to attract potential aerospace firms:

  • Business attraction – Let companies know what the benefits are of coming.
  • Business enablement – Help companies with their setup, gaining access to government funding, and helping them navigate through the Canadian aerospace market, be it through project management or helping firms find lease property, etc.
  • Help with cluster development – Get like-minded industries in the area to stop thinking about competing, but instead get them thinking about how they can collaborate to become one another’s force multiplier.

Given Peterborough’s obvious assets coupled with Canada’s reputation as a leader in certification, a very good tax environment for companies, lucrative funding options available, strong aerospace commitment from all levels of government, and more, it is an ideal time for turning dreams into realities, says Taylor.

“At our last two major trade shows, when we were at NBAA in Las Vegas and AIAC conference in Ottawa, we had incredible response and feedback,” he says. “I think it’s because it’s a value-added proposition –  there is a package of services at the airport – that really resonates with people. And I think to Keith’s point, I don’t think people really know what we have here. So, the industry itself is giving us great feedback. At the Paris Airshow, some of the comments about our certification prowess, our unrestricted air space . . . these kinds of things, it got us a lot of traction. Also, the fact Seneca College is now in place with that skills training, it makes it an attractive proposition.”

When asked what companies might be an ideal fit for the new Peterborough model, Gladstone notes that MRO and training firms would be an obvious choice with natural synergies available with partners such as Seneca and Flying Colours. “We are very interested in getting CAE involved here because of their obvious connection to training,” he says. “In the past few years, they have moved away from just being a simulator provider to being an integration training provider. They have a lot of interest in people like Seneca and trying to find a way to work with them. I also think the development of things like very light jets (VLJs) would be ideal – we are currently in discussions right now with a manufacturing firm to try to convince them to come to Peterborough.” Flight-testing and UAV development are other potential industries.

John Gillespie, president and CEO of Flying Colours, the city’s largest aerospace entity, is pleased with the progress at the airport and the establishment of the Peterborough Aerospace Centre. Such commitment, prior to the past three or four years, has been a long time coming, he says.

“For us, the benefits of being in Peterborough are immense,” Gillespie says. “The cost of living and quality of life are two of the main things and the fact you now have a ready, willing and able partner in the city. Twenty-five years ago they were nowhere to be found. We didn’t know where the city was . . . it was four miles up the road but now they are very evident on the map.

“Yes, the Peterborough Aerospace Centre is a concept,
definitely, but it’s a sound model. Everyone likes to use the word cluster these days but I think it’s a question of what your definition of a cluster is. What we have here has immense potential for growth and economic benefit – and not just for Peterborough.”

If you build it, they will come, indeed. There’s no doubt all the signs are pointing to something special on the aerospace front in the fields surrounding this unique Central Ontario town.

By the numbers
Quick facts about Peterborough and the Peterborough Municipal Airport

  • According to the 2012 Aircraft Movement Statistics: Small Airports – Annual Report, Peterborough is Canada’s busiest small airport, with 35,400 takeoffs and landings recorded.
  • Peterborough Municipal Airport has a 7,000-foot fully serviced runway, easy access to large, uncontrolled airspace and the ability to accommodate narrow-bodied aircraft.
  • The Peterborough Airport has recently undergone major upgrades, as a result of the $30 million in infrastructure investments made to the airport by the City of Peterborough, along with the federal and provincial governments.
  • Peterborough is the regional hub of east-central Ontario with a market draw of approximately 350,000 people.
  • Sixty per cent of Canadians and 40 per cent of Americans live within an 800-kilometre radius of Peterborough.