By Andrew Macdonald
A close ally of golf course co-owner Ben Cowan-Dewar, and one of the chief promoters of a Cabot Links airport, is providing more information about the Inverness airstrip.
Michele McKenzie, Nova Scotia’s deputy minister of tourism 20 years ago tells The Macdonald Notebook there will be a seasonal element to an Inverness airport, which is seeking $18 million in taxpayer dollars from Ottawa and Halifax governments.
She tells me that it is her belief the airport will nab regular commercial scheduled flights on a seasonal basis.
Obviously, one can’t golf in January at Cabot Links/Cabot Cliffs, so that makes sense, but it is the first time a seasonal element has been attached to the project.
Port Hawkesbury town officials fear government money going towards the Cabot Links project will lead to the bankruptcy of the Port Hawkesbury MacEachen Airport, a one hour and 12 minute drive from Inverness.
The entrepreneur running the Port Hawkesbury airport operates it 365 days a year, providing an important air service for health emergency aircraft and hospital helicopter services. If an Inverness airport leads to the closure of the Port Hawkesbury airport, those vital year-round services, including Canadian Coast Guard search and rescue operations would be lost in the Strait Region.
As I pointed out Saturday in a news article, McKenzie’s consulting firm McKenzie Strategies has done paid lobbying/consulting work for Cabot Links co-owner Ben Cowan-Dewar dating as far back as 2014. But, she tells The Notebook that she is not on a paid retainer from Cabot Links as she serves as a chief airport proponent for the two world-class golf courses, now ranked among the top 50 courses in the world.
In a 30-minute chat on Sunday, McKenzie, who was deputy minister of tourism from 2000 to 2004, told The Macdonald Notebook she was involved in the early pre-development stages of a golf course plan over the long abandoned coal fields in Inverness, well before Ben Cowan-Dewar and Chicago greeting card magnate Mike Keiser developed Cabot Links in 2011 and Cabot Cliffs in 2015.
As our conversation began, McKenzie turned the tables on me: “Let me ask you this, when was the last time you were up there (in Inverness)?”
That’s a fair question. The last time was 25 years ago, although to better understand how positive the two golf courses have been on the transformation of the economy in Inverness and western Cape Breton Island, I plan a trip in the next couple of weeks to gauge the impact on that region of the two world-class golf courses.
I’ll talk to new shopkeepers, tradespeople building the subsequent million dollar mansions and condos, talk to folk building and now operating rental accommodations for the international golf set playing the already world famed two courses.
I am familiar with the old Inverness, and its previous rap as a hardscrabble town, and the job-starved region of the Strait area, because I spent the first five years of my 30-year news career living and working in Port Hawkesbury. From that perch, I was often a roving reporter going into the depths of Inverness County. (To further date myself, then Inverness warden, Red Eddie MacDonald and his council colleagues in 1989 were still smoking in council chambers, with ashtrays brimming over with butts, during actual council meetings.)
Balanced and fair news coverage, I told McKenzie has been a hallmark of my 30-year news career; after all, some of the Notebook business leaders who read me strongly endorse the Inverness airport project, while other Halifax biz titans, who also read me, pan the idea of tax dollars going to that project at Cabot Links.
The hot potato issue has lit up my phone, everyone from former leading provincial politicos to multi-millionaire business folk have been ringing up my phone, offering there own opinions on the topic. One former politico titan called me on Canada Day, and off the record and this politico proceeded to tell me Elmer MacKay is a “political dinosaur” because he still calls the July 1 holiday Dominion Day!
Elmer spoke to the Notebook yesterday, panning government money for Cabot Links. The off the record politico suggested I make a first hand trip to see the positive transformation the two golf courses have had for the local folk.
Back to Michele McKenzie:
“I am looking at this from a broader tourism perspective, not just from the evidence that we can see from all of the investment at Cabot Links. I, like you, go back a long way,” McKenzie tells me. “I have been working in tourism for many years — in Nova Scotia for 40 years, so I beat you on that (30-year news career),” she adds.
“When I was the deputy minister of tourism and was visited back then by some leaders in Inverness who were working at the remediation of the site at the town (abandoned coal mines). Rodney MacDonald was minister of tourism at the time, and Rodney had asked me to meet with leaders from Inverness who were interested in how that remediation would go forth — and they had a vision then of a world-class golf course being built on that site.
“I have to say, I was really doubtful that could happen, but Rodney was a believer,” McKenzie says.
“I listened during that meeting and said, ‘They have a strong vision, and this could happen’. It was at a time when we had (government) rules on public investments, and one of those rules was that there would be no more (tax dollars) for golf courses — that we had enough golf courses across Nova Scotia, including significant investment in Cape Breton and also in Prince Edward Island.
“All of these investments happened with the promise there would be world-class golf courses, and attract people from all over North America — and those promises were very difficult to get — they actually weren’t delivering (on those previous promises), so it was difficult to think of another golf course investment in the face of those rules.
“The idea of Cabot and the vision that the leaders of Inverness had was against all odds, but they persevered, and had a very good idea which was natural for that site, and they got that and they kept pushing it, and they ultimately found (Ben Cowan-Dewar) who shared that vision, who could go out and raise that money, and that investment was ultimately made.”
By the time Cabot Links was built in 2011, McKenzie was then working in tourism in Vancouver.
“And, I was watching this happen, and I remember saying, ‘Look at them, they are making this happen, and they had this vision — and it (has become) a great success’,” she tells The Notebook.
“That was the start of building a stronger tourism cluster in western Cape Breton, and I was down there last year and visited Glenora Distillery — they were making investments, and I am going this year and we’re going to stay at a new brand new (high end campground) in Judique called Archer’s Edge, where a couple of young entrepreneurs have made a big investment there. It is always sold out and has received national media site.”
The Judique campground is addressing what has become all the rage in luxury camping, called a ‘glamping’ site – as in ‘glamour’ and ‘camping’.
“Glamour camping is a big trend in tourism – and now that has come to Cape Breton and we have these young entrepreneurs who have made that investment with great success in Judique.”
McKenzie says she is working on another entrepreneur’s quest to create a world-class hiking trail in the northern part of Cape Breton, that would be a East Coast counter to the Pacific Coast Trail that attracts people from all over the world.
“I am seeing these things come together, and I am seeing some tremendous strength and seeing some tremendous momentum and what I also know is that tourism in the world is being drive by air access, and the ability to bring people to locations in a direct and convenient way,” McKenzie tells The Notebook.
“We have air access in Nova Scotia, but we are talking about commercial air access to Cape Breton.”
She says flights into Sydney and Halifax and then driving to Inverness are both great options, “No one is debating that, those are great options—and they need to grow as well,” she admits. “But the idea of complementing that with direct commercial access, albeit on seasonal basis into western Cape Breton I think is very appealing because it starts to help all of this new (tourism) cluster that has developed reach a maximum potential.”
Back in 2000, the thinking among some folk in government was that an investment for Cabot Links, might detract from existing golf courses in Cape Breton, such as Highland Links, recalls McKenzie.
“But what has happened at Highland Links since then? Highland Links has grown (since Cabot Links was developed). It has attracted private investment going into Ingonish as a result of that.”
Highland Links is now owned by BlackBerry founder Jim Balsillie.
“The combination of private investment creates new opportunities for entrepreneurs and we are seeing that growing tourism cluster — and that has more potential,” she observes. “That is why I have weighed into this whole conversation.”
Why can’t international golfers going to Inverness just drive the one hour and 13 minute commute from the Port Hawkesbury Airport, I asked McKenzie.
“I am talking about commercial (scheduled) service. I think that the tourism opportunity that we have in Cape Breton will grow based on increased commercial air service. I am looking at this from a broader tourism perspective for western Cape Breton and what that can do for the entire region.”
I mentioned to McKenzie that I recently carried a news article from the perspective of Yarmouth airport official Clifford Hood noting that the regional airport there de-certified from commercial flights to become a private airport, and it has been some time since it had regular commercial flights from the likes of Jazz.
Hood believes the Inverness airport could become a “money pit” for governments, and is doubtful Jazz, Air Canada, WestJet or Porter would ever fly into Inverness. WestJet has told Cape Breton media it does not envision Inverness flights.
Question to McKenzie: Are you pretty certain Cabot Links can get commercial scheduled flights?
“When I look at this at the Canadian context, where we have seen growth, I am confident that we have a strong enough tourism cluster emerging in western Cape Breton that can attract commercial service. That is what I have gone on record and said.
“I think there are other parts of Nova Scotia who, in the longer term, have that potential as well, and we should be looking at that, too,” she tells me. “The new federal government tourism strategy released last month talks about the fact that tourism is growing in Canada, but it is disproportionately benefiting the big air hubs where people are landing in Canada, and that is where they are looking at a strategy, talking about dispersing more of the benefit across the country.
“That is great news for Nova Scotia. How can we develop more clusters that have the potential to benefit that,” she says.
She stresses: “I don’t see this as an either-or,” adding she is getting involved in the public discussion because she is concerned the issue has become Inverness versus Port Hawkesbury.
Have you seen Cowan-Dewar’s business plan for an Inverness airport?
“I am not privy to the business plan. I am weighing in on the discussion from the view that overall tourism case, which is very strong. I don’t have details of the plan, I am just weighing in on the tourism potential.”
She says there is lots of opportunities for Port Hawkesbury’s airport to grow, particularly with plans for a container terminal in the Strait of Canso.
“I don’t think this is a matter of one community against the other, I think it is a matter of the entire region growing,” McKenzie tells The Notebook.
McKenzie had a suggestion for my comprehensive Cabot Links news coverage:
“When you’re speaking to people on this, ask them how long it’s been since they’ve been to western Cape Breton. Get them to take a drive, get them to talk to the businesses opening up and the optimism of the community leaders. It’s a different place than it was when I started going there years ago.”
She says she spent time in Inverness in 1983 as executive director of the International Gathering of the Clans.
“It’s a different place. I really think you need to encourage people to go there.”