Buttonville Airport to stay open a year or more

Owners and operators of private and corporate aircraft can rejoice! The Toronto Buttonville Municipal Airport (Buttonville Airport) is likely to stay open through October 2018 or possibly even longer, according to Derek Sifton, president of Torontair Limited, which co-owns and directly operates the facility.

“During that time, we intend to maintain our high quality of service as a Million Air-branded FBO (fixed-base operation),” he told Skies.

There is up to 8.1 million square feet of land available for the Buttonville airport redevelopment plan, and this includes residential housing, commercial and office space, and hotel/convention centre space. Wiki Commons Photo
There is up to 8.1 million square feet of land available for the Buttonville Airport redevelopment plan, including planned residential housing, commercial and office space, and hotel/convention centre space. 
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The Markham, Ont., airport–which is scheduled to close with its land slated for redevelopment–has received a reprieve. The delay is apparently due to a reported disagreement between developer Cadillac Fairview (CF), the other Buttonville co-owner, and York Region about the fees the developer will be expected to pay in association with the planned mixed-use development project.

Given the airport’s footprint, up to 8.1 million square feet of land is available for residential housing, commercial and office space, plus a hotel/convention centre and a man-made waterfront district. Moreover, this land is smack in the middle of the Greater Toronto Area (GTA), with close proximity to highways and public transit. In other words, it is a developer’s dream.

So what is at the heart of the holdup that has extended Buttonville Airport’s lease on life?

According to an article in the Markham Economist & Sun, “It’s believed Cadillac Fairview, the chief developer of the property adjacent to Highway 404 and north of 16th Avenue, has walked away from the project over a disagreement with York Region on the amount of infrastructure fees it is being asked to pay.”

Markham regional councillor Jim Jones, who was quoted in the article, said Cadillac Fairview would rather “park the land, land bank it and see what happens in four or five years,” rather than commit to paying infrastructure costs now in exchange for project approval. “They thought the Region was asking for a blank cheque (on infrastructure fees for the property) like $300 million-plus,” said Jones to the Economist & Sun.

The redevelopment of Buttonville airport has become unavoidable, as it currently cannot compete with the revenues that the Cadillac Fairview project will earn. Andy Cline Photo
Buttonville Airport is slated for eventual closure, but the facility will continue to provide services for private and corporate aircraft until the fall of 2018 at least. Andy Cline Photo

Cadillac Fairview (CF) explained the Buttonville Airport situation to Skies magazine.

“In 2013, Cadillac Fairview and its partner, Armadale Properties Limited, submitted an appeal to the Ontario Municipal Board relating to its Official Plan Amendment Application for the development of the Buttonville Airport site,” said Janine Ramparas, Cadillac Fairview’s director of corporate communications and media relations. “A conditional settlement that was signed between CF, York Region and Markham in February 2017 has been terminated with significant differences remaining on infrastructure funding and development charges.”

As for the airport’s future? “While CF and their Armadale properties remain committed to ultimately redeveloping the site, investments will be made to permit ongoing operation of the airport for the foreseeable future,” Ramparas said.

For Derek Sifton, whose family owns the Buttonville Airport through Torontair, redevelopment is an unavoidable decision. “We have fought to keep the Buttonville Airport open for years, but the fact is that whatever revenue it generates is nothing compared to the billions of dollars the Cadillac Fairview project will earn,” he told Skies. (For his part, Sifton would prefer to keep the airport open. After all, his family has owned [now co-owned] and operated Buttonville since 1963.)

But Sifton’s decision is not just based on comparative profits. “The property taxes keep going up in Markham, while the Buttonville Airport is expected to pay its own way,” he said. To make matters worse, Buttonville used to receive a $1.5 million subsidy from the Greater Toronto Airport Authority (GTAA), which operates Pearson International Airport. That subsidy, which was initiated by the GTAA in 2001 to allow small planes to be diverted to Buttonville at busy times, was cancelled in 2009 due to GTAA cost-cutting. Despite pleas to the federal and provincial governments, Sifton was unable to get anyone else to fill this funding gap.

Buttonville Airport has been a Million Air-branded facility since 1985, and this has been good for the airport's steady traffic. Andy Cline Photo
Buttonville Airport in busier days. The facility has been home to a Million Air-branded FBO since 1985. Andy Cline Photo

Since that time, Buttonville Airport has been trying to survive by offering a selection of Million Air-branded FBO services. Designed to attract high-end private customers to the airport, Torontair’s website lists a full range of services including fuel and turnaround handling.

The airport offers customers access to a concierge service, a ‘hospitality bar,’ a meeting/conference room, and even a private theatre. Buttonville also has a pilot lounge, a Mercedes crew car for air crew use, and on-site car rental for passengers.

Buttonville has been a Million Air-branded facility since 1985, and the move has been good for the airport. “Our hangars and service facilities are busy,” said Sifton. “Of course, there is always room for more, but we are doing pretty well.”

[Fun fact: Million Air was founded by the Mary Kay cosmetics family in 1984 in Dallas, Texas; the company’s hometown airport. The cosmetics firm established Million Air in order to impress customers and sales representatives coming to the Mary Kay head office.]

Looking ahead, “We will do our best to provide superior Million Air service at Buttonville Airport, while we await the future of the redevelopment,” said Sifton. “After all, there is no denying just how central and useful Buttonville is to pilots flying in and out of the GTA. When the redevelopment deal is finally worked out and this airport is gone, nothing will be able to replace it.”

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