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The debate over the future of Edmonton's City Centre Airport has gone on for years. (CBC)

A group that wants the city to hold a plebiscite on the future of Edmonton's City Centre Airport has backed down from a plan to give money to community leagues for help with its petition drive.

"Our intention with this initiative was to offer these clubs an opportunity to raise funds while helping us get signatures," Envision Edmonton chairman Charles Allard said Tuesday on CBC Radio's Edmonton AM.

"It's been very ill-received in the media and our intention's been misinterpreted."

Last week, Envision Edmonton announced community leagues could earn 80 cents a signature if they helped the group gather names for its petition.  The plan is legal under provincial municipal legislation.

Last week, the group had about 65,000 of the 78,000 signatures it needs to gather by Aug. 24 in order to force a plebiscite on the airport's future during this fall's municipal election.

While four community leagues expressed interest in the proposal, none went any further than that. 

In July 2009, Edmonton city council voted in favour of closing the airport, which is located immediately northwest of downtown, so the lands could be freed-up for development.  The city started phasing out one of two runways at the beginning of August.

However, the airport is home to a number of businesses, and proponents argue it has a significant economic benefit to the community.

Development competition underway

If the plebiscite goes ahead, it will be the third one on the airport's future since 1992. That year, voters narrowly opted to keep the airport running with passenger services.

In 1995, a referendum supported having all scheduled passenger flights fly out of the Edmonton International Airport, 20 kilometres south of the city, but not closing the downtown facility.

A report released in June 2008 estimated the land, if sold, could accommodate 32,000 homes and earn the city an additional $95 million in property taxes.

Five firms from the United Kingdom, Sweden, the Netherlands, Canada and the United States are currently competing in a city-sponsored competition to redevelop the airport lands.