Nova Scotia

No way to validate economic predictions for proposed Inverness airport

The group proposing an airport for the Inverness area will not say how it calculated its predictions of major job and economic development growth.

'Confidentially sensitive' study belongs to Cabot Links Golf Resort, won't be released

It remains unknown where in Inverness County the group wants to locate the airport. (CBC)

The people behind the proposal to bring an airport to Inverness County, N.S. will not explain how they reached their predictions for employment and economic spinoffs they say the project would create.

Earlier this week, a five-page "business case" for the Cape Breton Island Airport was released. While it paints a picture of hundreds of jobs and millions of dollars in economic activity being created, nowhere in the document does it explain how the authors arrived at those numbers.

The document says the information is a summary of a larger study, but proponents involved will not make that study available because it was paid for by the people behind the Cabot Links Golf Resort.

"It comes from a comprehensive technical plan that Cabot, as a private business, commissioned to explore the opportunity, infrastructure and technical requirements, and the economic benefits of the project," Michele McKenzie, a former deputy minister of tourism who is doing public relations for the proposal, wrote in an email.

"This will inform government's review and analysis of the opportunity. The Cabot plan contains confidentially sensitive information."

Inverness MLA Allan MacMaster says people in his community deserve concrete information about a proposed airport for the area before a decision is made. (Nic Meloney/CBC)

Inverness MLA Allan MacMaster said there's nothing wrong with Cabot wanting to keep its business information private, but he noted the reported ask of $18 million that would be shared between the federal and provincial governments isn't supposed to be about the golf course.

"This is an airport operation that is, from what we understand, expected to be 100 per cent funded by the public," he said.

"And the success or failure of that operation can only be analyzed by the public if they have the information."

The proposal has created controversy on the island, as a number of prominent people — including local MP Rodger Cuzner — get in line to advocate for something that has no tangible public details so far and would likely remove any viability from the airport in nearby Port Hastings.

The lack of details include where the airport might be located. A spokesperson for the Lands and Forestry Department said Cabot Links had a letter of authority for wind monitoring equipment on Crown land in Inverness County in an area called Masons Mountain in July 2018, but that permit has since expired.

The idea being advanced is spearheaded by the Cape Breton Island Airport Community Interest Company.

The arguments put forward say there are missed opportunities for the western part of the island right now because the nearest commercial airlines land in Sydney or Halifax, although in the absence of the more comprehensive study it's impossible to actually quantify those claims.

Ben Cowan-Dewar, co-owner of the Cabot Links and Cabot Cliffs golf courses, is one of the people behind the proposal for the airport. (www.golfconversations.com)

It has suggested bringing commercial air service to a seasonal airport in the Inverness area would benefit tourism and the local economy as a whole.

Cabot co-owner Ben Cowan-Dewar has previously said Cabot would not "directly profit" from the development of an airport. That might be the case, but MacMaster said it's pretty clear they'd directly and immediately benefit from the development.

"This is not something that was started by a group of people that are independent of the golf course," he said. "This is an idea that's been started by the golf course."

To that point, while the Cape Breton Island Airport Community Interest Company is a registered non-profit, it's difficult to separate it from Cabot.

The directors of the company include Cowan-Dewar and the resort's chief financial officer, Jennifer Alkenbrack. The two also serve as the non-profit's president and secretary, respectively.

MacMaster said he's not opposed to proposals that grow the region and that the area needs people willing to take chances. But he said those chances also need a solid business case that governments can justify to the public.

"You have to look at these things and make sure that you're not just throwing money at a dream, that there is some substance to it."

He has concerns people in his area are being promised results that can't be achieved and worries about who would cover the costs of operations, given that airports "aren't necessarily very profitable."

"Especially ones that are low-volume traffic," he said. "I would hope that wouldn't get put on the local population."

Asked if he thought Cabot should be contributing money to the project if it were to go ahead, MacMaster referred to the Fox Harb'r Resort in Wallace.

"There is another golf course in the province that built their own air strip."

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About the Author

Michael Gorman is a reporter in Nova Scotia whose coverage areas include Province House, rural communities, and health care. Contact him with story ideas at michael.gorman@cbc.ca

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