As has been stated in this very space in the not-too-distant past, there is room for only one fully-functioning airport in Inverness County at the moment.
The day before a meeting of Inverness Municipal Council on June 6, councillor John Dowling sent The Reporter a Letter to the Editor that he heard from very reliable sources that Cabot Golf is championing the building of an airport in Inverness County, most likely the Strathlorne area.
Expressing his “shock” at the news, Dowling said he understands the provincial and federal governments are being approached to provide upwards of $18 million for the venture. The councillor said this money is not earmarked for the right cause.
In his letter, Dowling said the air traffic would “fly in wealthy golfers to Cabot for six months of the year.”
Dowling told The Reporter he’s also spoken to the management of Celtic Air Services Ltd. about the matter. Celtic Air runs operations at the existing airport in Inverness County, the Allan J. MacEachen Port Hawkesbury Airport.
In a press release, Celtic Air Services president David Morgan said he is “extremely frustrated” that the federal the government would “endanger” both the company and the airport.
Since moving back to Nova Scotia three years ago with his family to take on this opportunity, Morgan said Celtic Air has worked “tirelessly” to expand its customer base, promote Cape Breton as a destination and revitalize the airport. Celtic Air is also actively pursuing regularly scheduled commercial flights.
Morgan said the airport welcomed more than 1,000 flights last year, three quarters of which carried passengers visiting Cape Breton’s golf courses. In addition to receiving flights from across North America, the Port Hawkesbury Airport provides 24 hour a day, 365 day a year services for EHS Lifeflight, the Department of Lands and Forestry, and the Canadian Coast Guard. The Port Hawkesbury Airport also hosted the region’s first airshow in 2018.
Adding that he is “disheartened” the federal government would put the airport at risk, Morgan noted that Celtic Air has invested more than $2 million in private sector money into the airport and surrounding communities.
Andrew Alkenbrack, Cabot Links general manager, confirmed to The Reporter they have been working for years with all levels of government to get commercial air service for the western region of Cape Breton. He said commercial air service will help create a tourism hub in western Cape Breton.
As a recognized global tourism destination that provides over 650 jobs, Alkenbrack said Cabot has been a catalyst for growth and private investment in Inverness County.
After news broke of a potential new airport, there was some support expressed, but far more opposition.
Port Hawkesbury Mayor Brenda Chisholm-Beaton explained town council feels the Cabot Links Airport would directly jeopardize and ultimately bankrupt the Allan J. MacEachen Airport.
The town issued letters to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Premier Stephen McNeil, and Bernadette Jordan, the federal minister of rural economic development, detailing their grave concerns.
The letter noted that the airport is an “integral” piece of transportation infrastructure that compliments the existing network of rail, road and port connectors needed to foster regional economic development, which is vital to advancing projects like Bear Head LNG, Melford International Terminal, Pieridae Energy, the Canso Spaceport Facility, the Strait of Canso port development, and Oceans Innovation development.
Chisholm-Beaton asserted that redundant infrastructure exhibits poor economic leadership, and putting the interests of one business ahead of diverse regional interests is both short-sighted and irresponsible. The mayor reasoned that two airports, one hour apart is “negligent, unrealistic, and a poor use of taxpayers’ money.”
She suggested ensuring the continued success of Cabot Links in a way that will not jeopardize the existing airport.
Cape Breton-Canso MP Rodger Cuzner told The Reporter the airport project has been kicking around for 10 years, and its merits are now being weighed. He said he would be negligent if he did not give the plan consideration.
Cuzner said the new airport affords the opportunity for scheduled, direct flights from Toronto and New York, which would bring in more tourists.
The long-time MP said the current airport in Port Hastings handles charter flights but that only accounts for four per cent of the golf tourism – while 80 per cent of the golf tourists fly into Halifax and make the three-hour trek each way to hit the links in western Cape Breton.
Because of Cabot Golf, Cuzner said Inverness is an emerging tourism hub with two of the best golf courses in the world.
The new sense of confidence in the area that was brought by Cabot Golf has translated into investments in many different projects throughout Inverness County, Cuzner said, pointing to Route 19 Brewing, MacLeod Properties, and Glenora Distillery.
In addition to serving golfers looking to play Cabot Cliffs, which is ranked ninth in the world according to Golf Digest, Cuzner said the new airport opens up other opportunities for places like the Gaelic College and allows fishermen to get their catch to markets in major centres, straight off the wharf.
Scheduled flights also provide opportunities for artists, musicians and business operators, according to the MP.
With so much outmigration in Cape Breton, and only one side of the island experiencing growth, Cuzner hopes people know he’s considering an option that will help, not hurt, remarking that in all his time as MP, he’s never seen a project with the potential to have as great an impact as this one.
However, Cuzner added he is fully aware of the opposition to the second airport and he is considering the impacts it would have on the Allan J. MacEachen Airport, as well as Celtic Air Services.
If the airport outside Port Hawkesbury will be affected negatively, then the second airport project should be shelved until there is sufficient population and growth to sustain both.
Using public money to foster more development in western Cape Breton is not a wise investment if it disadvantages other regions and further pronounces the economic imbalance on the island.
In addition to the loss of jobs and infrastructure, there is also a possibility the closure of the airport in Port Hawkesbury could undermine major projects earmarked for the Strait area.
Arguments that the second airport will not just benefit Cabot Golf are unclear. It is questionable whether the Gaelic College will make more use of it than they do existing airports in Sydney and Port Hawkesbury, and whether fishermen will be able to get their catches in the air quicker?
And if Celtic Air is successful obtaining direct and scheduled flights, it will make the second airport redundant.
There are great things happening in Inverness County, particularly in and around Inverness. Cabot Golf has attracted more tourists, golfers and residents, and it has created employment and enticed investment. But whether this growth is sufficient to justify the construction of a public airport at this moment in time is debatable.
As it stands, there are airports outside Cape Breton’s two population centres, which makes sense since they rely on the many services and support infrastructure that are only provided in larger communities. This is complimented by a growing international airport outside Halifax.
Where in this mix of available airports – in such a small province, on such a small island – another airport fits is hard to discern.
Cabot does have a good case to make for the construction of an adjacent airport, just not at this time.