Federal government reaches the right decision, but leaves the door open for another airport proposal

Eventually, the federal government made the right decision by shelving a proposed airport project for Inverness County, but how long it will be sidelined is anyone’s guess.

On July 25, the Minister of Rural Economic Development, Bernadette Jordan, confirmed that the federal government was backing away from the project, explaining that projects applying for funding under the Canada Infrastructure Program, Rural and Northern Communities Infrastructure Stream “must improve the quality of life in those communities.”

Although the decision was reached weeks after municipal councils, elected officials, residents, companies, organizations, and many other Canadians made their opposition known, the government’s rejection of the airport also opened up the possibility of another proposal in the near future. In her letter, the minister urged the provincial government, municipalities and project partners to submit a revised proposal which would demonstrate how the new airport would improve the quality of life for residents.

While this might seem like another way to revive the project in the not-too-distant future, it’s questionable whether project stakeholders will be able to demonstrate how it will improve the quality of life at that time, when they were unable to do so over the past two months.

And to which “communities” is the minister referring? In this case, a government-funded airport in Inverness would have killed the airport in Port Hawkesbury, which would have a detrimental effect on the entire Strait area. It’s hard to conceive of another similar proposal that wouldn’t have negative consequences on the local airport.

Like Celtic Air Services Ltd., municipal officials and opposition parties, the Canadian Taxpayers Federation (CTF) rejoiced over the rejection of the proposed $18 million in public money for a golf course airport near Inverness.

Calling it a “victory for taxpayers,” the CTF pointed out that it collected more than 15,000 signatures in an on-line petition opposing funding for the airport. The proposed airport would have been located one hour away from the Allan J. MacEachen Port Hawkesbury Airport and two hours from the airport in Sydney.

With that in mind, in retrospect, this project should have included and involved those airports, rather than competing against them with public funds. One idea which emerged during this debate was gradually building up airport infrastructure in the Inverness area to eventually pick up any excess traffic from the Port Hawkesbury airport. One specific idea was the construction of a heli-pad in Inverness to compliment the service in Port Hawkesbury.

This way, construction of airport infrastructure would not have been an existential threat to the Allan J. MacEachen airport, and as a result, the Inverness area, as well as Cabot Golf, could have benefited from the Port Hawkesbury airport’s growth.

After the government’s rejection was made public, Cabot Golf managing partner Ben Cowan-Dewar struck an optimistic tone, declaring the company’s “story is far from over.” In the midst of another strong year, Cowan-Dewar said Cabot looks forward to many more years of growth and will continue to partner with entrepreneurs, businesses and community members to grow Cape Breton.

Cowan-Dewar said he has believed in western Cape Breton since arriving 15 years ago and still believes in the region’s potential, pointing to the “incredible sense of momentum around this special place.” Stating that “residents of these communities have benefitted from that success,” he believes Cabot can do more to bring more people to Cape Breton.

Indirectly addressing the minister’s concerns, Cowan-Dewar said Cabot Golf remains focused on projects and opportunities that will improve the quality of life for residents, noting that the company has seen “hundreds of people benefitting from what’s happening here,” which includes more than the two world-class golf courses in Inverness but new breweries, restaurants and accommodations, all on the doorstep of a “tourism cluster” surrounding the Cabot Trail.

This airport proposal is dead, but according to Cabot and the federal government, only for the time being. How long it will remain dormant, and whether it will be quickly revived after the federal election in October, remain to be seen.

If the airport project is revived, hopefully it will be with wider support.