Big Development at Southport

If Southport were an actual town, Peggy May might be called the mayor. While she's not elected, the CEO of Southport Aerospace Inc. is in charge of snow clearing, sewer and water services and even, when it comes down to it, the maintenance of law and order at the 1,944-acre former Canadian Forces Base Portage la Prairie, about three kilometres south of Portage. Among other things, the not-for-profit, non-share corporation owns 188 residential units that are fully occupied with a waiting list of 100 people. Perhaps most importantly, it is the landlord to the Canada Wings Aviation Training Centre, the basic flight training facility for the Royal Canadian Air Force. Just about every RCAF pilot comes through Southport for their original training and some subsequent training. As well as simulator instruction at Southport, pilot trainees fly Grob 120s for basic flying training, Beechcrafts for advanced multi-engine training, Bell 206s for initial helicopter training and Bell 412s for advanced rotary wing training. The flight training is operated by a KF Aerospace (formerly Kelowna Flightcraft) on a 20-year, $2-billion contract with the RCAF that lasts until 2027. May, the former director of marketing and commercial partnerships at the Winnipeg Airports Authority, has to wear many hats at Southport, including management of a busy recreation centre that's getting a major facelift. Today she'll be hosting about 85 people at the sod-turning for a $3-million expansion, renovation and kickoff of the Central Plains RecPlex. "This will be our public face," May said. "It will be the gathering place for people coming to Southport. This is what Southport is. This is the culture." When the Department of Defence decided to leave the Portage base in 1990, Portage la Prairie formed Southport Aerospace Inc. and acquired the whole place including all the land and about a dozen buildings for $1. "We are like an airport authority, but the difference is, we own everything," May said. For example, the Winnipeg Airports Authority still pays a rental fee to the federal government even though it does not provide any services. Southport is financially self-sufficient and effectively debt-free. It has annual revenues of about $8 million, from which it's able to finance projects such as the RecPlex and a $6-million airfield apron project last year. "This is a very successful enterprise," said Southport's chairman, Sheldon Hiltz. "I don't think there is anything else like this that's ever been tried in the country." Unlike other non-profit corporations, Southport began without a stakeholder constituency. So a general membership had to be created. It now has a group of 60 members who elect a board of directors that runs the corporation. Peter Fedak, the newly named site manager for FW Aerospace, is a retired lieutenant-colonel in the RCAF. His last post was in command of the Canadian Forces Flight Training School at Southport. He liked it so much at Southport, he is making it his career after leaving the Forces. "Its fantastic here. It's very productive," Fedak said. "KF Aerospace provides all the services for the RCAF -- our customer -- to conduct pilot training. For the last few years that I am aware of, KF and Southport got top marks for the services." Of course Southport's management wants to see that relationship continue even past the 2027 contract life. "We want to see it last forever," May said. Southport does what it can to make KF Aerospace even more comfortable. A couple of years ago, it built a $10-million deluxe residential housing facility with 96 units. It is not 100 per cent occupied, so it became a hub of activity through the recent RBC Cup National Junior A Championship in Portage la Prairie that was won by the hometown Portage Terriers. As successful as it is, Southport is more than just an air force flight training facility. It is home to a number of institutional tenants and a growing number of commercial and industrial tenants. "We have a very large campus, and we're quite willing to build to meet the needs of anyone who want to locate here," Hiltz said. "Part of what we want to do is diversify the business." On a tour of the facility, May points out the location where Southport wants to build its next hangar. "We're looking for interest," she said. "There's lots we can do here. We've got one of only three airport towers in the province." She talks about the need for an FBO (fixed base operator) that could handle services for private planes or air cargo operations. Centreport better watch its back.

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