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The Globe and Mail

Float plane operators walk away from unfinished terminal

A float plane takes off in Vancouver, B.C., on Monday September 29, 2008.

Darryl Dyck For The Globe and Mail/darryl dyck The Globe and Mail

A long-running dispute between float plane operators and the developers of a new terminal has veered into even choppier waters, with the operators saying they want to build their own facility.

The two groups have been at loggerheads for months over a levy that would be added to fares at the $22-million facility, nearing completion at the north end of the new Vancouver Convention Centre.

"The economy of it just doesn't work for us," Greg McDougall, chief executive officer of Harbour Air and president of the eight-member Vancouver Commercial Seaplane Operators' Association, said Monday. "And it's a blank cheque for the developer, because they can charge whatever they like, in perpetuity."

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The developers - Vancouver Harbour Flight Centre, a joint venture between the Clarke Group and Ledcor - say a $12 one-way trip fee is needed to generate a reasonable rate of return for the private-sector partners in a modern, user-friendly terminal.

Float planes, which ferry business people, tourists and other passengers between downtown Vancouver and Vancouver Island, the Gulf Islands and other destinations, are a fixture on the harbour scene but are without a permanent home.

Harbour Air moved its previous facility to make way for construction of the convention centre and is currently operating from a base in Coal Harbour, where some nearby residents have complained of noise.

That makeshift solution was supposed to be resolved with the construction of a new float plane facility, which was planned as part of the new convention centre. VHVC struck a deal with B.C. Pavilion Corp., the provincial Crown corporation that runs the convention centre, to build and operate the terminal.

At the time the facility was announced, in September, 2010, VHFC was counting on Harbour Air as its main tenant.

But fees soon became an issue. After months of negotiations, the float plane operators this week said they haven't been able to reach an agreement with VHFC in relation to fees and want to run their own, non-profit facility on a Port-Metro-Vancouver-owned site east of the convention centre.

That leaves VHFC putting the final touches on a facility that, at this point, has no anchor tenant.

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The operators' proposal for a would-be rival terminal has "zero" impact on VHFC's plans, VHFC chairman Graham Clarke said Monday. The facility is expected to be complete in May, he said.

"We are quite far down the road, we have built all the floats, we are in the process of building the commercial retail unit in the northwest corner of the building, we are doing the elevators - we have invested a lot of money in the building and we are just going to keep going," Mr. Clarke said.

Sites east of the convention centre have been considered - and ruled out - before, based on issues including marine navigation routes.

Under its lease with the city, Harbour Air was to move from its existing site some time in 2012, when a two-year term expires, or when a new, permanent facility is built - whichever came first.

Once a new facility is up and running, Harbour Air's lease would no longer be in effect, a city spokeswoman said Monday, adding that the company could apply for a new lease for a new site at any time.

Harbour Air, the biggest float plane operator, has taken the lead in negotiations on the new terminal. But smaller operators are also weighing in, saying the potential levy would drive away passengers and business.

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"Twenty-four dollars is just too much," Philip Reece, marketing director for Saltspring Air. "And you could justify $24, if it was going to be $24 for something - but we still don't have access to the other public transport, it's not going to be the facility we want."

Port Metro Vancouver representatives were not immediately available for comment.

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About the Author
National correspondent

Based in Vancouver, Wendy Stueck has covered technology and business and now reports on British Columbia issues including natural resources, aboriginal issues and urban affairs. More

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