YK airport demonstrates another way to decide a location

Yellowknife Airport from the air
Yellowknife Airport in May 2020, when a travel shutdown meant the long-stay parking lot featured an abnormal degree of social distancing. Ollie Williams/Cabin Radio

In the space of a week, two NWT government departments demonstrated contrasting approaches to deciding where things should go in Yellowknife.

Education officials were strongly criticized by some residents last week for the method by which they announced a proposal for a university campus on the city’s Tin Can Hill.

Asked which other locations were being considered, Chris Joseph – the GNWT assistant deputy minister leading work on the campus – told reporters: “I won’t speak to specific alternative sites because, at this point, we’re not presenting alternatives. We’re presenting what is optimal.”

Tin Can Hill was the only site presented by the City of Yellowknife and GNWT to city councillors. On Monday evening, one week after the initial announcement, councillors decided to sign a memorandum of understanding confirming Tin Can Hill as the “intended site” of the campus, despite presentations from some residents who fiercely oppose the plan. (Councillors said many residents had expressed support, too.)



Earlier on Monday, councillors received a separate briefing on a different major project: Yellowknife Airport’s master plan for expansion.

The airport is unlikely to begin expansion work imminently. Even the boldest estimate would suggest the project is at least a few years away, and staff say a bigger airport will only happen if passenger and air traffic numbers grow to warrant it.

But the Department of Infrastructure’s staff nonetheless appeared in front of councillors on Monday – at council’s request and in the middle of a public survey about two options for a future airport – to set out the possibilities.

Randy Straker, the airport’s manager, explained how five initial options had been refined to two propositions: either a terminal east of the airport’s main runway, accessed via Old Airport Road, or one on the west side of the runway, accessed via Deh Cho Boulevard. Again, he stressed, any decision to go ahead would be years away, not least because the project could cost $300 million to $600 million, money the territory does not currently possess.



Straker said there were already some signs that the airport needs to expand, even though passenger numbers have not hit the kind of threshold required for an expansion to become urgent.

Air operators who take up airside hangar space, like Buffalo Airways and Air Tindi, are running out of room, Straker told councillors.

Gary Brennan, a Department of Infrastructure assistant deputy minister, reminded councillors the current air terminal – built in 1967 – is 55 years old and was, in his view, almost at capacity before the Covid-19 pandemic depressed passenger traffic.

‘Make sure we do it right’

At least one councillor, Shauna Morgan, needed a moment to establish why the briefing was occurring at all. Another, Julian Morse, expressed reservations about commenting in favour of one option or another while a public survey was ongoing.

But Brennan and Straker wanted to be clear: they were coming to councillors and the public good and early to set out the options and the pros and cons.

“We thought, well, let’s engage and give people and stakeholders the opportunity to have some input,” said Straker.

“We need to have a plan: what next, as the city grows and the airport grows? We want to do it responsibly,” said Brennan.

“The government is not going to just go out and make a decision. We want to get all the inputs that we can. We’re a big economic driver for your city and the Northwest Territories. We want to make sure we do it right.”



Not off-guard

A university campus and an airport are in many respects entirely different projects, but the two share similarities: they are both major installations with a significant economic impact on the city and a large impact on their immediate neighbours.

“It’s nice when things don’t catch people off-guard,” said Morse to Brennan and Straker, drawing a direct parallel between their presentation and the Tin Can Hill proposal being reviewed by councillors later that day.

“The current situation didn’t go that way, that we’ll be meeting about tonight,” Morse said.

Ultimately, council chose not to reach any immediate consensus on which of the airport options they might prefer. Morse and Councillor Robin Williams expressed personal preferences for the first of the two options, meaning a terminal closer to Old Airport Road.

Sheila Bassi-Kellett, Yellowknife’s city manager, noted that a terminal on the west or Deh Cho Boulevard side of the airport would require significant water and sewer work, paid for by the NWT government but led by the city.

She also said the city would want to look at its “overall interests” before making a decision, nodding to efforts that prioritize revitalizing the downtown over developments like hotels nearer the airport.

“We think costing is very important as well,” said Bassi-Kellett, saying expanding piped water and sewer services as part of such a project is “something we’re very interested in being able to collaborate on.”