Nichols leaves Oilers to wade into airport debate

The chairman of the Edmonton Oilers hockey club is taking a voluntary leave of absence so he can devote more time to fighting the closure of City Centre Airport.

The chairman of the Edmonton Oilers hockey club is taking a voluntary leave of absence so he can devote more time to fighting the closure of City Centre Airport.

"I'm doing this for two reasons — one, not to have any conflict of interest or opinion of the Edmonton Oilers hockey club and the new downtown arena development project and the politics that surround the Edmonton City Centre Airport,"  Nichols said.

"And the other thing is, that this will give me more time to do my thing as chairman of the Alberta Enterprise Group."

The AEG is a business advocacy organization that wants the airport to continue operating.

Edmonton city council will hold public hearings on the airport's future in June.

After those hearings are completed, Nichols's reinstatement as chairman of the Oilers will be at the discretion of team owner Daryl Katz.

Having Nichols on board to lead the airport debate is significant for Alberta Enterprise Group, said David MacLean, the organization's vice-president.

"Cal is making a pretty important decision to focus his time and energy on Alberta Enterprise Group … it's an indication of the importance that he places on this issue and the seriousness of the debate," MacLean said.

The downtown arena and the closure of the airport have been two hotly debated issues in Edmonton in recent years.

The Oilers would like to build a replacement for Rexall Place, the team's current home. Katz prefers a downtown location for the new arena, but there has been much public discussion about whether any government money should go into funding it.

As for the airport, city council is looking at closing the facility for good and freeing up the land for redevelopment.

It has become an emotional debate because of the economic and historic ties the airport has to Canadian history and northern Alberta. The airport opened in 1929 as Blatchford Field, the first licensed airfield in Canada.

Hard-fought plebiscites

A series of hard-fought plebiscites in 1992 and 1995 led to the airport being closed to most scheduled traffic, and flights were moved to Edmonton International Airport, a 30-kilometre drive south of the city, in an effort to consolidate airline traffic at a single facility.

City Centre Airport is now limited to private, corporate and small commuter flights to northern Alberta

The debate was reignited last year with the release of the city report, which estimated redevelopment could earn the city $500 million in land sales and generate $95 million in property taxes each year.

Supporters of the airport, who like its ease of access from downtown, have vowed to fight its closure. They include people who run businesses at the airport, as well as mayors of northern Alberta communities.

Nichols, who became chairman of the Oilers board of directors in June 2008, headed the Edmonton Investors Group, the consortium of Edmonton business people who owned the team from 1998 until Katz bought the team in 2008.