Nova Scotia

Political dispute brews over proposed airport near Cape Breton golf hub

There's a political dispute brewing in Cape Breton about a proposed airport for Inverness, N.S., that the operator of two world-renowned golf courses on the island wants to build to cater to visitors.

Mayor says airport catering to Inverness golfers would likely 'bankrupt' Port Hawkesbury airport

Cabot Cliffs in Inverness, N.S., has been ranked highly by Golf Digest. (Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press)

There's a political dispute brewing in Cape Breton about a proposed airport for Inverness, N.S., that the operator of two world-renowned golf courses on the island wants to build to cater to visitors.

No firm plans have been unveiled for a development, and neither the federal or provincial governments will confirm whether any proposal is currently being considered for funding.

But the mayor of Port Hawkesbury, about an hour away, worries such a project would almost certainly force the Allan J. MacEachen airport on Port Hawkesbury's outskirts into bankruptcy.

Mayor Brenda Chisholm-Beaton has written both Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Nova Scotia Premier Stephen McNeil, saying the Inverness project would be "negligent, unrealistic and a poor use of taxpayer's money."

The operators of the Cabot Links and Cabot Cliffs golf courses want to build the seasonal airport, and the prospect has its supporters, including Cape-Breton Canso MP Rodger Cuzner.

The proposal has been around "for 10 years, at least," he said, and would be a "tremendous boost" for the golf courses in Inverness and for tourism and business operators across much of the island.

Port Hawkesbury Mayor Brenda Chisholm-Beaton has written the prime minister to ask that the federal government not support a proposed airport in Inverness. (Submitted by Brenda Chisholm-Beaton)

Chisholm-Beaton disagrees. She said the area cannot support two airports within an hour's drive of each other.

"It's not like selling cars, where the more dealerships you have, you're creating a destination for buying cars. Airports don't really work that way," she said in an interview.

Chisholm-Beaton said an airport in Inverness would cater to a specific clientele, rather than bringing in visitors for other Cape Breton destinations.

"It's more than just Cabot Links. It's about the Fortress of Louisbourg, it's about Alexander Graham Bell [National Historic Site], it's about all of our other wonderful golf courses in Cape Breton," she said.

"And I don't think this new airport is capturing that Cape Breton brand. It's capturing one business's brand."

Cape Breton-Canso MP Rodger Cuzner said an airport in Inverness could benefit business and tourism operators across much of the island. (CBC)

The airport in Port Hawkesbury does not handle scheduled flights from major carriers, but caters largely to privately owned aircraft and flights operated by government departments such as Lands and Forestry and the Canadian Coast Guard.

Last year, the company that operates the airport, Celtic Air Services, said it welcomed more than 1,000 flights, three-quarters of which were passengers visiting golf courses in Cape Breton.

But Cuzner said the Inverness airport plans to bring in scheduled commercial flights, and that would attract a different type of visitor.

"The people flying into Port Hawkesbury are those who can afford to hire private jets," said Cuzner, adding many other visitors to the golf courses in Inverness currently fly into Halifax and drive the rest of the way.

He said scheduled flights to Inverness would bring in "the next tier" of traveller.

"They can't afford to charter a plane, or they don't own a plane, but they can fly directly," said Cuzner.

David Morgan, Celtic Air Services president, said the Port Hawkesbury airport has been pursuing scheduled commercial flights for years.

 He said there have been several applications to the federal government for funding for needed upgrades, but they have been unsuccessful.

"The town of Port Hawkesbury and the committee that manages the airport with representatives from the various counties and surrounding municipalities have put forward a plan to ACOA, I think every year for the past few years," said Morgan. "Last year there was great news that everything was going to go ahead and all of a sudden, basically the tap got turned off again."

Morgan also said the airport would not survive on charter traffic if the airport in Inverness were built.

"Charter traffic would also go to the new airport because it's closer," he said.

The airport in Port Hawkesbury welcomed about 1,000 flights last year. (John Dowling)

Andrew Alkenbrack, the manager of Cabot Links, would not comment directly on whether there is a current proposal for an airport before government.

But in an email, he said they have long sought commercial air service for western Cape Breton, and believe it would help create a "tourism hub."

The CEO of the largest airport on Cape Breton, J.D. McCurdy Airport in Sydney, said he questions whether another airport is needed on the island.

"They are very expensive to build, operate and maintain, and I would be concerned that government funding for another small airport into the system could reduce the overall funding amount earmarked for existing small airports that often struggle to maintain operations," Mike MacKinnon wrote in an email.

With files from CBC Cape Breton's Information Morning

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