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Seaplane operators agree to independent review

Controversy continues over new terminal in Vancouver Harbour

A disagreement over a $12 per passenger floatplane user fee at the soon-to-be-completed Vancouver Harbour Flight Centre has been sent to the office of the provincial ombudsman for review.

"The fact that we aren't really getting anywhere with these guys (Harbour Centre managers) we decided that we needed to take it to the next level," said Whistler Air owner Mike Quinn, who is one of eight floatplane operators who formed a consortium to contest the user fee at the $22 million facility.

Greg McDougal, president of the Vancouver Commercial Seaplane Operators' Association (VCSOA) and owner of West Coast Air and Harbour Air, said the owners of the new terminal are operating on a for-profit model that unnecessarily over-charges the airlines for docking privileges. He welcomes the review proposed on February 24 by the site's landowners, B.C. Pavilion Corp (PavCo). The independent review will look into business dealings between the Harbour Centre's developers - the Clarke Group of Companies, chaired by former chair of the Vancouver Airport Authority Graham Clarke, Ledcor Group of Companies, the crown corporation PavCo, and the VCSOA.

"Any review has to encompass PavCo's role in this scenario and how we got to where we are at in terms of why PavCo has not supported a not-for-profit model all the way along and why there is a for profit model here that is holding the travelling public hostage forever more," said McDougall, adding that his group has been trying to negotiate with the involved parties for five years.

"We have exhausted face to face discussions with PavCo in the room, with Ledcor, with Clarke - we talked ourselves blue in the face and never got anywhere because they thought hey had us over a barrel, they thought they had the travelling public over a barrel and that we would have to pay whatever they wanted us to pay because it's a monopoly and we just weren't going to put up with that."

Ledcor public relations coordinator Lee Coonfer said the company was surprised by the controversy and recent headlines over the project.

"All of the particulars around the construction costs and fees that could be associated with the facility have been known for quite some time," he said. "The timing is a bit surprising given we're three quarters of the way through construction and now the operators are having this tremendous opposition to it."

According to Coonfer, the VCSOA had an opportunity to bid on the current facility three years ago, but chose not to. McDougall refutes this claim, saying the float plane operators' bid was rejected for not encompassing 90,000 square feet of retail space that was to be attached to the docking facility under one lease.

"Fast forward to today and there are two separate leases so we say 'what happened in the middle? Why did this developer wind up with a stand-alone lease on the sea plane development?'" he said. "That was a breach of the process and the very reason we were told we couldn't do it."

According to Coonfer, alternative arrangements for keeping costs down are available if all sides - the City of Vancouver, PavCo, and the VCSOA - work together.

"Maybe we could work out volume arrangements on fuel purchases, etc, to try and restructure how the rent is paid," he said. "Maybe they commit to a certain amount of fuel purchases instead and the rent is lowered, there are all different ways to skin the cat and we're more than willing to sit down and talk about it."

The VCSOA has filed an application with the Port Metro Vancouver (PMV) in favour of a building a not-for-profit facility to the east of Canada Place. A harbour study done by PMV doesn't favour the proposed location, and Coonfer thinks it is unlikely another facility can be built for less than the Vancouver Harbour Flight Centre.

"They say they can do a not-for-profit model much more cheaply, I'd like to see the details on that because again, they were offered the chance to build this one but couldn't do it for the cost that we could," he said.

"In 2009 there was a study done by an independent group that did an economic analysis that told everyone that it's going to cost between $20 million and $28 million dollars, we're doing it for $22 million so that's at the low end of what they predicted. If they want to take it on, go for it."