Aviation museum pleads for Hangar 14 ownership in wake of arson fire

“It’s not just going to impact the museum if we end up having to vacate the property. It will also impact several other groups and organizations that reside in here as well.”

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History’s been on the auction block for two years under the looming threat of a reported $42 million renovation bill.

At Edmonton’s Alberta Aviation Museum, history hangs in the balance. City council is expected to hear a proposal Thursday that would allow the museum to stay in the historic Second World War hangar at Kingsway and 114th Street — even more rare after historic Hangar 11 across the former Blatchford air field burned to the ground last month in a suspected arson.

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Historia double-double

“This is a part of history and heritage that needs to be preserved. I would be very curious to find if there was another organization out there that would have the passion and the dedication to a structure as what the museum does,” said museum executive director Jean Lauzon.

With more than 80,000 square feet, the hangar’s a “double-double” — twice as wide and twice as long as a typical hangar — and it has thousands of stories to tell.

Built in 1942 and 1943, it sheltered gleaming Art Deco planes bound to fight Nazis in Eastern Europe.

A workforce of thousands included bright young “Rosie the Riveters” winterizing the American-made warbirds to prepare them for the long journey via an air superhighway to the Soviet Union via Alaska.

That history is at risk, said Lauzon, who will ask city council to either sell to the museum or partner with the museum for the long term.

“There’s a threat to the museum because if the hanger goes up for sale again, whoever buys it can do whatever they want within the heritage restrictions that the hanger has on it, but the museum doesn’t necessarily have to stay in the hangar,” she said.

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Which begs the question — where else to put 30 historic airplanes?

“That potentially could decimate the organization.

“It’s not just going to impact the museum if we end up having to vacate the property. It will also impact several other groups and organizations that reside in here as well,” Lauzon said.

Big expenses looming

A city investment study completed in February 2022 showed some big expenses coming due on the hangar — some due entirely to northern Alberta snowfalls.

“The city took on an investment study and did everything and investigated the entire structure and came back with a $42 million price tag to bring the building up to current day building codes and standards,” Lauzon said.

Between 2018 and 2019, an engineering firm found specific structural members that had failed, cracked, or exhibited significant wear, and recommended reinforcing all 546 truss joints, 146 truss compression members, and replacing 186 truss members, along with all post-tensioning cables.

The museum has engaged consultants and engineers, and Lauzon believes the project can be done for less than the price tag the city came up with.

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“If it’s done smartly, and if it’s done in a partnership, the cost would not be as high as what has been stated to be,” she said.

The fact that a building meant for a war effort has lasted and still proudly serves “is a testament to exactly what small non-profits and a multitude of organizations can achieve in keeping the structure secure and safe,” Lauzon said.

While the property was for sale, one company looked into it — T3, the company that had plans for what was Hangar 11, Lauzon said.

“What they also found was that the hangar itself is not only municipally designated, it’s provincially designated. With that provincial designation came a lot of restrictions of what you can and cannot do to the building.

“So you can’t just put in all new fancy windows, you can’t just knock out walls — there’s a lot of restrictions,” she said.

By the numbers

The museum’s gallery floor takes up half the space, another one-quarter is covered with the museum’s restoration area for storing artifacts and building displays.

The remaining one-quarter is an event rental space.

There are 10 staff, a handful of summer students, and some 90 volunteers.

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Collection items are a matter of trust, not saleable assets, but the value is estimated in the millions.

According to city figures, in the 30 years between when the museum moved into the hangar and when it was put on the market in 2022, the city worked on or in the building in 10 of those years, spending a total of $334,000 over three decades.

The museum has installed all manner of smoke alarms, a full wet fire suppression system, alarms and video surveillance, and they’ve renovated three sets of washrooms to full accessibility, costing more than $300,000.

There’s an annual budget of $1.1 million for operations of the museum and the hangar — all on the museum.

The current lease puts some maintenance and capital costs on the city.

Funding for the non-profit comes from thousands of admissions annually, rentals, events, programming, grants, donations and philanthropic gifts.

Every year the museum applies for government grants but there is not a budget line item by any government.

In 2019, the museum started on a path to becoming sustainable.

A strategic fund helps find capital bucks — donations, grants and bursaries.

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Most museums these days struggle with inflation’s dollar shrinkage and clawbacks, and patrons struggle to meet ends just like everyone else.

But with expanded and enhanced programming, rentals and other strong stewardship efforts, the museum can continue to be a museum that operates in the black and becomes fully sustainable, Lauzon said.

“We would like to be the owners of everything going forward. We would prefer if we would be able to establish a long-term partnership with the City of Edmonton regarding the hangar. But if that’s not the case, then we would like to take over ownership so we had control of what was happening here,” she said.

“We’re invested in the building, we’re invested in the property. I think the best would be for us to stay here so that we can continue investing into it, but we don’t have the power to say

“They do,” Lauzon said of the city.

The matter comes before the executive committee at city hall on Thursday at 1:30 p.m.

[email protected]

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