Editor’s Note: This is The Macdonald Notebook’s original News Scoop on the fact Cabot Links wants government money to build an $18 million airport. This news scoop was published on June 1st, 2019.

By Andrew Macdonald

Cabot Links, a funding favourite with the Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency, wants even more federal and provincial government money, say well placed sources.

For the last two years, golf course builder Ben Cowan-Dewar has been quietly working on a plan to build an $18 million airport in Inverness near his two golf courses in that western Cape Breton village.

And, my sources say he has gone to the government of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau for money to help build the airport – as well as the McNeil government. A previous attempt to get funding from the former Stephen Harper government was to no avail – Harper rejected the request.

Back in 2014, Cowan-Dewar had a plan to seek $3 million from the municipal government in Inverness County, but that plan died after the then warden and municipal politicos favouring the funding were rightly defeated on the issue.

As it stands, Cabot Links has received a commanding $8 million from ACOA to build its two popular golf courses, both ranked among the world’s best. In 2013, the Darrell Dexter government issued it an $8 million loan – which has been all paid off, according to the NS government.

There is an airport in Port Hawkesbury, just an hour and 12 minute drive from Inverness that is able to handle private Challenger and Lear corporate jets. It would be criminal for the government to now fund an airport in Inverness, which would only be used for the short Nova Scotia golf season.

Last fall, the Port Hawkesbury airport was named for its politico builder in the 1970s and is now known as the Allan J. MacEachen Regional Airport.

It is owned by the Town of Port Hawkesbury, and Dave Morgan of Celtic Air Services has a contract to operate the facility. Over recent years, that operator has spent well over $2 million in investments out of its own pockets and bank loans. “The total is higher than that. It’s the bank’s money, and we put up everything we had to m0ve this business forward”, says Morgan.

The Port Hawkesbury airport has seen a 400 per cent increase in business, due to Cabot Links golfers touching down.

In  a chat with The Macdonald Notebook, Morgan called it of concern when I told him my sources indicate that the Trudeau government has been asked to help build an airport at Inverness.

“We’ve heard rumours of that. There has been systems installed to measure the weather and winds for their engineering studies. I’ve heard lots of rumours of it but I haven’t heard of a shovel being in the ground”, says Morgan.

“We have lots of traffic coming in here for Cabot for sure. As a critical piece of infrastructure in Cape Breton that the airport is here (in Port Hawkesbury). We supply more roles than just being a landing pad for Cabot tourists. Granted we may not even be able to provide any of those services if it weren’t for the Cabot tourists, but as it stands we service Medevac air health traffic, Natural Resources, the Coast Guard, and general aviation services – but I don’t think those services would continue to exist if there was an airport built in Inverness”, Morgan tells The Notebook.

“We value our relationship with Cabot, and the traffic that that brings to the Island, and the whole Island has grown as a result of that. The tourism here has grown greatly and the offerings increased. But with that said, I grew up in Margaraee Forks, went away and trained as a commercial pilot and moved my family home to the area to start Celtic Air Services, and we do it without any grants or anything like that”, he says.

“It would be tremendously upsetting to go into competition with some backed or funded by the federal government, and even more so, it would be a tragic loss of a piece of infrastructure in Inverness County, that is the Allan J MacEachen Regional Airport”, he adds.

“We are putting great efforts to increase the services here. We have created year round employment, and we are meeting the needs of the travel industry, and the business jet groups. We’ve marketed this airport all around North America, and you know we are still not profitable. We are working towards profitability”, he says.

“I would hate to think I moved home here to lose everything”, he tells me.

“The folks that work here and who are supporting their families would be on the losing end as well – that would be a tough pill to swallow”.

There are nine full time employees.

Former long time Port Hawkesbury mayor and a former Buchanan cabinet minister, Billy Joe MacLean tells The Notebook that the day an airport opens in Inverness, the same day the Port Hawkesbury airport would “absolutely close”.

Long a champion of the Port Hawkesbury air strip, MacLean, the region’s longest politician with over 50-years of getting re-elected consistently, says it is a topic near and dear to the Strait area’s four counties.

“It would absolutely kill Port Hawkesbury”, MacLean says of the Inverness project.

The previous Harper regime did a study in 2014 that said no government funding from Ottawa would go to smaller airports across Canada, recalls MacLean.

“That was the final decision because we were in the process of spending close to $2 million dollars for a new navigation system, and an a extension to our airport and lighting and it was just about approved when Harper came up with its study”, says MacLean.

“At the same time, I said publicly at town council that we would not be interested in investing that money because our operation was completely dependent on the airport serving the golf course in Inverness”, the former town mayor tells The Notebook.

Back in 2014, Cabot Links wanted three government level funding to upgrade an air strip in Margaree. That proposal was for $3 million from each of municipality, province and federal government. I understand the people who supported this proposal were defeated in the 2016 municipal election.

Now sources report Cabot Links co-owner Ben Cowan-Dewar has reportedly returned with a new proposal for a whole new airport near Inverness. The municipality would not be a partner and he is reportedly seeking provincial and federal dollars to build it.

“To suggest in 2014 that they were going to have commercial aircraft fly into Margaree, when they knew at the time the commercial aircraft component was kind of ridiculous – and now they are back at it again”, says MacLean.

“The day they open and build a new airport in Inverness, that day the Port Hawkesbury airport closes”, suggests MacLean. “This airport in Port Hawkesbury services the pulp mill in town, and different industries depend on it, plus Medevac, plus emergency flights”, he says.

MacLean says Transport Canada advised Port Hawkesbury that it was ridiculous to think the town airport could nab commercial traffic. “If it was ridiculous in Port Hawkesbury, it sure as heck is ridiculous in Inverness”, he says.

“What they are now asking for it to share $18 million on an airport for Inverness golf courses – and there is a 20-minute difference in travel time to where they suggested it in the past in Margaree”, as compared to the drive from Port Hawkesbury. “To save 45 minutes is not worth $18 million and to have two airports in the same county is unheard of across the country”, claims MacLean.

“And it would be a shame that industry in Port Hawkesbury would lose the airport and the area, because it has been here since the 1970s – and it is now called after (political giant) Allan J. MacEachen – and rightfully so, because Allan J made sure there were funds spent here years and years ago”.

A key question that has to be asked of the Trudeau government is would the impact of that be on Port Hawkesbury’s airport, which is just a one hour and 12 minute drive away, from Inverness.

MacLean says Dave Morgan “has his life savings invested” in his contract with the town to operate the Port Hawkesbury airport. “He is really working at it as an entrepreneur, and I feel it would not be fair for this to happen”, says MacLean.

“I’ll put it this way, if the golf course wanted an airport, if they want to invest in it and pay for it themselves, that is the private sector. But to again ask Ottawa for public funds”, the Harper study in 2014 “shot that idea down”.

“This is a complete surprise to me”, MacLean said when contacted by The Notebook about the new funding request of various governments for an $18 million project.

“Inverness County council rejected the idea of funding the project – and that was sensible”, noting the former warden and some councillors lost the 2016 vote. “The new council that came in thought it was a waste of taxpayers money”, he added.

“This will become quite an issue once this news gets out”, suggests MacLean.

With $8 million in ACOA loans already, should the government build a private airport for patrons of the golf courses, or is it reasonable for those golfers to travel just over an hour from Port Hawkesbury?

If golfers want an airport near to the golf courses, should that be paid by the golf course owners? After all Ron Joyce built his own golf course and airport at Fox Har’br, on the Nova Scotia North Shore.

ACOA famously handed out government grants to build hotels and resorts in the 1990s, and at the time the late great hotelier Don Keddy said that taxpayer dough going to competitors put his own Atlantic hotel chain in bankruptcy.

Last fall, The Macdonald Notebook reported that Ron Joyce’s son Steve Joyce lamented the fact that Cabot Links got federal money when Ron Joyce spent $45 million of his own money to build Fox Har’br.

Here is that story from last fall, where Steve Joyce questions if Cabot Links can get government money from Ottawa, then he should be able to get government money for a planned second golf course expansion at Fox Harb’r

By Andrew Macdonald

If Cabot Links in Inverness, Cape Breton, can get multi-millions of development money from the Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency, the family of billionaire Ron Joyce think they should also get ACOA low interest loans for a planned second 18-hole golf course at Fox Harb’r Resort.

That’s the word from Steven Joyce whose Northumberland Strait resort near Tatamagouche is considering building a second golf course and a multi-storey hotel.

In a chat this week with Joyce, he was quick to stress he is pursuing a preliminary conceptual master plan over an ambitious expansion of the celebrated Fox Harb’r Resort.

Steven Joyce, son of Timbit titan co-founder Ron Joyce, says he plans to seek funding for the project by going to ACOA.

Joyce calls Cabot Links’ easy success in getting multi-millions from ACOA to build two golf courses in western Cape Breton exasperating because Fox Harb’r was built 20 years ago without government grants and loans at a cost back then of $40 million.

Fox Harb’r is located on the shores of the Northumberland Strait near the North Shore community of Tatamagouche, and currently has 72 accommodation units. The resort hosted former leaders Bill Clinton and Tony Blair in July when they were keynote speakers for the annual Frank McKenna network shindig, which 175 politico and Atlantic business leaders are invited to attend.

Joyce tells The Macdonald Notebook that expansion plans include a 42-room hotel, which would have underground parking. He is not disclosing the price of expansion until budgeting is finished, and does not yet have a start date, but such an undertaking would likely cost between $50-$100 million.

Joyce shared the exclusive details with The Macdonald Notebook after a reader of mine kindly tipped me off to the ambitious plans at the resort built 20 years ago near the senior Joyce’s boyhood home of Tatamagouche.

Joyce was speaking this week from the family’s airplane charter firm, Jet Port, in Hamilton, Ont. He was at Fox Harb’r earlier in the week.

“We are certainly considering it,” he agreed when asked about plans for a new hotel and golf course.

“There will be additional hotel space,” he tells The Macdonald Notebook. “We’re not going to build a tower, but the hotel would have elevator access.

“The new hotel will be five-star, and we’re going to expand the spa of the existing building, and create more meeting space,” while renovating the existing clubhouse, says Joyce.

The hotel would have a big footprint, though, with underground parking. “No one wants to look out over a great big parking lot. The parking will be concealed. You don’t go to a place like Fox Harb’r and look at asphalt.”

There will be additional restaurant space, and patio space added to the hotel.

“We’re doing budgeting and forecasting now. It’s going to be an expensive endeavour,” he says. “It’s a pretty substantial expansion.” The proposed hotel will cover 60,000 square feet.

“Fox Harb’r is our brand, we’re not going to get the hotel flagged by a hotel brand,” he tells The Macdonald Notebook.

On the plan for a second golf course, Joyce is talking to golf design architects, and a request for proposal for its construction has been let.

“We’re not ready to disclose who we are talking with,” he says.

“We’re certainly not wavering on our commitment to Fox Harb’r,” says Joyce, although in recent years Ron Joyce said the resort was not a serious money maker for the family.

“I’ve been involved with this project for 20 years,” says Steven Joyce, who attended the Clinton and Blair speaking engagement at the resort in July to hear the global geo-politics perspective from those statesmen.

Suggesting the family’s fortune might be better invested in the stock market, he is thinking of approaching ACOA because in recent years the federal agency has poured millions of dollars into Cabot Links for the construction of two golf courses, and accommodation space.

“ACOA seems to be a pretty common thing with Cabot. It gets a bit exasperating when you see ACOA dump buckets of money into another property in the province,” Joyce tells The Macdonald Notebook. “If the government is giving money to Cabot, and, while I don’t need loans if they are giving out interest-free loans, and while my money is better spent on the capital markets, I might approach ACOA.

“ACOA is giving very favourable terms to my competition, and I find that a little exasperating because Cabot Links’ (owner) is not under-capitalized. He has a lot of money,” says Joyce.

“I don’t begrudge Cabot Links. They are good for golf in Nova Scotia and help draw international attention to golfing in Nova Scotia, but I do find it a bit offensive when ACOA is giving very generous loans and terms to competition while we’ve never had government funding.

“It should be a level playing field,” says Joyce, who says he is employing more than 200 people at peak season in the Tatamagouche area.

“I certainly feel that Fox Harb’r creates more employment than (Cabot Links) and that we are entitled to the same consideration (on getting ACOA loans),” says Joyce, who is building 12 more permanent cottages at Fox Harb’r to complement the 40 homes already at the resort, which has a marina.

Joyce stressed repeatedly the expansion project is in early preliminary consideration.

“I am not committing at this stage to anything. We’re mapping it all out, doing a master plan for the resort, we have a lot of room to expand.”

The Fox Harb’r Resort sits on 1,100 acres, and there is an existing 5,000-foot runway for private corporate jets.

He wants to create convention space at the resort that would host 300 people comfortably.

Ron Joyce, a self-made billionaire co-founder of the iconic Tim Hortons chain, died the other month at 88.