Cold Lake mayor concerned by plans to move military aircraft testing to Ottawa

The mayor of Cold Lake says the creation of a new centre of excellence for military aircraft testing in Ottawa will create turbulence for the economy of his small northern Alberta city.

'I think we need to be careful about what we're moving out of rural Alberta'

Military personnel guide a CF-18 Hornet into position at the CFB Cold Lake, in Cold Lake, Alberta on Tuesday October 21, 2014. (Jason Franson/The Canadian Press)

The mayor of Cold Lake says the federal government's plan to move military aircraft testing to Ottawa from Alberta would create turbulence for the economy of his small city.

The federal government plans to relocate Aerospace Engineering Test Establishment (AETE) based at CFB Cold Lake to the international airport in Ottawa, shutting down the current operation and repurposing the hangar it uses.

Cold Lake mayor Craig Copeland said he has been told between 50 to 70 military and civilian jobs would be lost in the move.

"When you hear the number of high-paying jobs that could be at stake in a community of our size, it is concerning," Copeland said Friday.

"When you're talking about five to 10 per cent of the workforce possibly on the wing in a small city like ours … it does have lasting effects."

The AETE unit, which conducts engineering flight test and evaluation projects, has been based at Cold Lake since 1971.

The unit provides flight test services and expertise to the Department of National Defence for fighters, multi-engine and rotary wing aircraft and systems.

It is made up of military and civilian personnel, including test pilots, engineers and other maintenance and support experts.

The unit employs 166 military personnel and 22 public servants. 

If the move to Ottawa goes ahead as planned, about one-third of the unit will be relocated, Department of National Defence spokesperson Ashley Lemire said in an emailed statement to CBC News.

The remaining personnel will be reassigned to other positions, Lemire said.

"This partnership will streamline our flight testing and evaluation capability," Lemire said.

"The final details of the move are still being worked on, including costs, and we are in ongoing discussions with the Ottawa International Airport Authority regarding the location of the new centre."

The relocation would reduce AETE operating expenditures by approximately $14 million annually, and free up space for the arrival of more fighter jets at Cold Lake, Lemire said.

"While no final decisions have been made at this time, should discussions be successful, we are expecting that a move of AETE operations to one of our DND facilities at the Ottawa International Airport would not take place before summer 2021."

We're at the whim of politicians, which is always scary.- Craig Copeland

Copeland said there has been no consultation on the decision and local representatives have not been briefed on the potential impacts.

They've heard comments from the federal government and the Official Opposition about the future of AETE and they don't have all the answers, Copeland said.

The relocation would be a huge blow to the community and he's frustrated by the uncertainty, he said.

"We were just a bit caught off-guard that all of sudden this was being publicly talked about in Ottawa," Copeland said.

"They're saving what, $14 million? They'll lose that in their sleep. I think we need to be careful about what were moving out of rural Alberta.

"Right now, we're waiting for the fighter jet program to get funded, and infrastructure on the base to get upgraded but it's kind of wait and see. And we're at the whim of politicians, which is always scary."