Brandon Sun Brandon Mayor Shari Decter Hirst waves as she departs the first WestJet Encore plane from Calgary to Brandon on Tuesday. (BRUCE BUMSTEAD/BRANDON SUN)
The dust has settled at McGill Field following Tuesday’s major celebration to welcome WestJet Encore to Westman, but now some questions are emerging regarding the city officials’ trip to and from Calgary.
Brandon Mayor Shari Decter Hirst, along with city manager Scott Hildebrand and economic development director Sandy Trudel, were among the local officials who jubilantly flew in on the very first flight from Calgary to Brandon, and were welcomed by more than a thousand cheering spectators.
Over the past few days, the issue of whether this was a "taxpayer-funded photo op" has been a topic of conversation locally, online and mentioned as such in a Winnipeg Free Press column on Wednesday.
"I’m extremely disappointed that such a positive event is turning into a negative," Hildebrand said Thursday.
"I hope this type of response doesn’t colour future business opportunities for Brandon, because at the end of the day, we want Brandon to be positive and prosperous and it’s disappointing to even be talking about this."
Hildebrand said the city covered the cost for the three Brandon representatives to fly from Winnipeg to Calgary, as well as other travel costs such as hotel rooms and meals. The total cost was $1,475.
"We used (funds) within our existing budget to make this work," Hildebrand said, adding they were very "conscious of the costs."
A group of city representatives (which included Decter Hirst, Trudel and Hildebrand) travelled to Calgary to present a creative business case to the airline in June 2012.
"We were in Calgary before as part of the ‘sell’ job, and to me this is the wrap up of that," he said.
The group participated in a ceremony at the WestJet gate in Calgary prior to takeoff on Tuesday, which Hildebrand said was one of the main reasons they went.
"This is us being a true partner with WestJet and making sure that we were there representing the City of Brandon and Westman," he said.
Hildebrand defended the decision to send all three officials on the first flight and noted that part of his job as city manager is to work on economic development strategies and bring industry to the city.
"This was a business trip, not a leisure trip," he said. "This is about building partnerships and business. This is about economic development. If we were there on a leisure trip and we were being wined and dined, that would be one thing, but this was far from that."
The group flew from Winnipeg Monday evening and came back the next morning on the first flight, along with Brandon Chamber of Commerce officials and WestJet Encore president Ferio Pugliese, which Hildebrand said was very beneficial.
"We actually got face time with the president. We actually talked about future business opportunities. We were able to be on the flight sitting beside him face to face for two hours having conversations about what we can do in Brandon and how we can continue to prosper," Hildebrand said.
Decter Hirst told the Brandon Sun last week that "WestJet is very generously picking up those expenses" for the flight to Brandon. This has since drawn some criticism from the public, questioning whether the mayor or city officials should receive freebies such as this.
Hildebrand wouldn’t comment on any gifts received from WestJet.
"The primary business relationship is with the City of Brandon," he said. "We don’t have an airport authority like Winnipeg or Calgary." He added that the airport can be viewed as a department of the city so "it was all business."
The celebration on Tuesday cost the city $1,286, which included a tent, gift bags for travellers, food and event promotion. Updated numbers show more than 1,200 people attended.
"I’d like to thank all the sponsors," Hildebrand said. "This was truly a community event and for a dollar a person, that is one great investment that I would do again."
Republished from the Brandon Sun print edition September 6, 2013