Cabot CEO addresses airport controversy

Photo by Grant McDaniel -- Cabot Golf CEO Ben Cowan-Dewar visited Inverness Municipal Council on August 15.

PORT HOOD: Ben Cowan-Dewar, the CEO and co-founder of Cabot Golf, said his company is not presently looking to push for the building of a commercial airport near the community of Inverness – but his phrasing leaves the door open for developments down the road.

“Will we resubmit?” he said. “I don’t have an immediate plan to resubmit. I’ve been thinking about golf in Inverness for 15 years, and we continue to build on that. We’ve been talking about an airport for 11 of those years, and I haven’t been good at giving up yet, but there is no date to resubmit.”

Cowan-Dewar said those words when visiting with Inverness council members last Thursday, during council’s monthly committee-of-the-whole meeting.

It was the first time the golf magnate spoke with the local council since word broke that an $ 18-million commercial airport was being considered near the community of Inverness. Doing the considering was the provincial government and its federal counterpart.

On July 25, the airport proposal was shot down by Bernadette Jordan, federal Minister of Rural Economic Development, who said the proposal didn’t fit the mandate of the Canada Infrastructure Program, Rural and Northern Communities Infrastructure Stream.

Such projects have to improve the quality of life in communities by responding to specific needs. She said there was not enough information to demonstrate how this project would respond to Cape Breton’s requirements.

Cabot Golf was one of the stakeholders in having such an airport developed, as having a commercial airport near the golf hotspot would be good for business.

Deputy Warden Alfred Poirier outlined that council was, to some extent, in the dark as to what was actually taking place.

“We should have a seat at the table,” he said, noting that if a re-submission is to be made, the local council ought to be consulted. “Would you be ready to work with us on a plan to make it feasible for all the businesses around here so that it wouldn’t be destroying existing businesses?”

Cowan-Dewar said he would very much like to have Inverness Council’s input, and that his visit to council is proof of that. Additionally, he said that he and Cabot worked well with council in the past.

Though the project was eventually scrapped, there was a time when Inverness County was considering serving as a funding partner for a Margaree-based airport. That operation would have had ties to Cabot Golf as well.

Councillor Laurie Cranton noted that he had meetings with Port Hawkesbury Town Council, who own the Allan J. MacEachern Airport now operated by Celtic Air Services. Were there to be a commercial airport developed in Inverness, the consequences for Celtic Air were concerning to many.

“I see this having a big impact on the business there,” Cranton said. “Is there a way to bring all the airport components together, with other parties, and try to come up with an air transportation plan that would work for the county?”

Cowan-Dewar said he was open to that. He added that Cabot, in the initial proposal, was willing to cover any operational debt of the Inverness-based airport, so his company was willing to do its part for the greater good, he said.

Councillor Jim Mustard said it’s important to have good communication between the private sector and the municipality, and Cowan-Dewar said he’s all for that. The CEO pointed out that Cabot Golf is a big tax payer, and the company is invested in being a good corporate citizen.

Representing the Port Hastings area, home to the Allan J. MacEachern Airport, is councillor John Dowling, and he said it was disappointing that Cabot didn’t reach out to Inverness Council sooner.

Dowling said with the municipality facing a crisis in water and waste water infrastructure, the prospect of having $18 million of tax payer money spent for an airport doesn’t seem reasonable.

With that, he questioned some of the assertions made about how the proposed airport would have affected the local workforce. Prior to Minister Jordan axing the project, a website (buildcapebreton.ca) was launched detailing why some business leaders felt the airport would benefit the area.

“I hate to say it, but some of these numbers seem to come out of thin air,” he said. “It would be awesome to provide 600 jobs, but I don’t know where these numbers are coming from.”

He also referenced that customers of Cabot Golf don’t generally spend their money off Cabot grounds.

The impact on the Allan J. MacEachern Airport and Celtic Air Services is another matter of concern to Dowling. He said there are operations at the airport like medical helicopter services that could be undermined if the airport goes under.

Cowan-Dewar said the Allan J. MacEachern airport accounts for only 2.5 per cent of Cabot’s customers, and that operation is subsidized by three municipal councils.

“[The Allan J. MacEachern Airport] is seen as critical infrastructure to the Strait area, and we don’t see that changing,” he said. “I’d also say in the 50 years of their existence, they haven’t seen commercial service. That’s no fault of them, but this is about commercial aircraft, not private aircraft.

“It’s really about growing the pie for Western Cape Breton Island. Commercial air access is the way all tourists travel, not just the ones who come to us. ”

He added he stands behind the statemement that, in the area, Cabot has created 600 jobs.

In terms of attracting commercial air traffic to the area, the CEO said Cabot had conversations with the three major airlines in Canada, and he feels comfortable that getting commercial air traffic into Inverness was possible. Having Cape Breton Island ranked, by Travel + Leisure magazine, as Canada’s number one island travel destination (and the eighth island travel destination in the world) doesn’t hurt, he said.

Warden Betty Ann MacQuarrie said there were things for which Cabot should be thanked, namely the growth in the local tourism market and the growth of Inverness County’s tax base. She offered Cowan-Dewar a tip of the hat for that.

The warden said that Minister Jordan would like to have all municipalities on the island agree with the building of the airport for it to go forward.

“She [Jordan] also emphasized that it should increase the quality of life for Cape Breton Island,” MacQuarrie said. “I think that’s been happening with the injection of money to our tax base.

“I think it would be worth reapplying so far as all the T’s are crossed and I’s are dotted.”