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Aviation museum has a couple of years to figure out its future

The Alberta Aviation Museum's future is in doubt, after city council voted to sell the building.

The Alberta Aviation Museum has seen a spike in visitor numbers, even though Edmonton city council has put the facility's future in doubt after voting to sell the building.

In July, the museum had a 13 per cent increase in visitors (3,197 in total) compared to the same month in 2019 (2,829) before the pandemic restrictions hit, a museum official says.

Museum curator Ryan Lee says the increase shows there is ongoing strong public interest in the museum, as the summer traffic followed a busy spring. Back then, the museum also registered a doubling of gift shop revenue.

"They're (tourists and other visitors) comfortable coming again after COVID," he said.

The museum had been seeing about 22,000 visitors a year prior to the pandemic, with an admission of $15 for adults, and discounts for seniors, students, youths and children.

In July city council voted in favour of pursuing a sale of the 80-year-old structure rather than pump an estimated $41 million--most of it within four years--into necessary upgrades.

There's now a two-year countdown, which will keep the museum at its current site while developing a strategy to find other private or government partners for the non-profit organization. If the museum can't find a partner or purchase the building itself, it could lose the place it has called home for 30 years, putting its future in jeopardy.

Lee says museum officials only learned shortly before of the City's decision and had no inkling such a short timeline would be set to decide its future.

"I just wish the City had spent more time working with us. The two-year time frame is pretty tight."

But with such a large financial commitment needed to keep the building viable, councillor for the area Anne Stevenson said she doubted getting council support for a huge financial infusion given current budget restraints.  Providing a two-year window for a possible new partnership arrangement at least provides some breathing space to develop "a third option," Stevenson said.

"The ultimate goal is to have the Alberta Aviation Museum in a safe, secure Hangar 14 that is not owned by the City and therefore not subject to the stresses of its budget processes and decisions," Stevenson explained in a blog on her councillor website.

She said the two-year time limit is "not set in stone" if significant progress is at least made on a new organizational plan for the museum. 

"Genuinely I think it can be a rebirth" she said.

The museum operates on about $1 million a year raised through museum revenues, private donations, federal grants and funding from the Edmonton Heritage Council.

There are only nine full-time employees, assisted by "a very passionate" contingent of about 100 volunteers, some in their 90s who have volunteered for up to 30 years, Lee said.

"We do a lot for very little compared with other institutions," he said.

The hangar is protected under provincial and municipal historical resource designations, so it isn't likely to be torn down, despite "critical asset failures" cited in a city administration report.

The 72,000-sq-ft hangar was built by the Royal Canadian Airforce during the Second World War for the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan for pilots. It has a collection of more than 30 historical aircraft, plus memorabilia and interactive displays documenting Alberta's rich aviation history during both world wars and as a "gateway" to and from the north.

The museum moved into the hangar in 1991. In 2019 the museum organization signed a 25-year lease with the City.

See albertaaviationmuseum.com for information on feature exhibits and programs, community events and fundraising efforts.