By Andrew Macdonald
I caught up with Chester Island biz titan John Risley, a self-made billionaire and co-founder 40 years ago of Clearwater Seafoods, on his take on Ben Cowan-Dewar’s quest for $18 million in taxpayers dollars to construct an airport in Inverness near his Cabot Links golf resort.
“Let’s go back to my argument. So we’re going to generate another $500,000 in economic activity, maybe what we should do is station a helicopter in Port Hawkesbury because when you are on an airplane flying in you don’t care whether you land in Port Hawkesbury or some new airport, what you want to do is land in a spot that is convenient to get to the lodge,” points out Risley.
“And…things like Customs. Port Hawkesbury would have customs because Port Hawkesbury is close to the Canso Strait where you have ship traffic. And you have to think where are the planes coming from. I would think a lot of them come from the U.S., so what is the incremental cost of having Customs over at this new airport. That would be quite an expensive feature,” he says.
“If I was the resort, and I can generate another $500,000 in economic activity, I’d station a helicopter at Port Hawkesbury, and as my customers land in their private jets, then I will helicopter them right into the resort, and it is only a 15-minute ride,” says Risley.
“If that costs me $150,000 for the season, so what? I am generating another $500,000 (in golfing fees),” he tells me.
“If I was the government, I’d want to put that test to them, if there is another $500,000 and you want to access that $500,000, why aren’t you doing something like stationing a helicopter in Port Hawkesbury, which would be dedicated to bringing customers back and forth, and let’s see the results of that.
“Let’s see how many people actually come, let’s do it for a year, and you can advertise that feature, and if we get a lot of people and see if there is lots of demand, and we can translate that demand into an extra $2 million in economic activity, then there is a better business case.
“These are numbers off the top of my head,” Risley admits. “I do know they are very busy, whether that means they are 70 per cent or 80 per cent full, I just know they are very busy—and that is good,” Risley says.
“You can only sell up what (volume) is remaining,” he notes.
“The people who are coming now are tolerating the hassle of getting there, however they are getting there,” he adds.
In a media interview with the Cape Breton Post this week, golf resort owner Ben Cowan-Dewar says his two world-class resorts are already at maximum golfing capacity and that the Inverness airport would not immediately benefit the two courses since green fee bookings are well into the future.
Instead, Cowan-Dewar says the Inverness airport would benefit the regional Cape Breton tourism cluster, popping up because of the two courses.
“Look let’s put an airport in Amherst, too, and while we are at it, why not put one in Truro, because that will benefit the tourism industries in those areas,” argues Risley. “Are people going to fly their private airplanes into an airport next to Cabot Links so they can explore western Cape Breton?
“I am not saying a few wouldn’t but I am not sure there is a business case for that, particularly when there is an airport in Port Hawkesbury. It seems to me if you are interested enough in exploring Cape Breton, and you have a private airplane, then you will fly into Port Hawkesbury, or fly into Sydney. I don’t think I will vacation in Cape Breton only if there is an airport somewhere west of Port Hawkesbury. I think that is a bit of a stretch for an argument,” Risley tells The Notebook.
“Having said that, I like the guy (Cowan-Dewar). I think he has done a tremendous job there. He has obviously built a world-class destination, and evidence of that is that the golf course is full. But if the golf course is full, I don’t get the business case for building the airport,” Risley said in our 20-minute chat.
Ben Cowan-Dewar has released what he calls a ‘business case’, but it is more a marketing brochure. Key factors such as how many commercially scheduled flights would land weekly or yearly and how many passengers these flights would attract has not been disclosed. Cowan-Dewar cites confidential and proprietary reasons for not disclosing those factors.
“Fair enough. That is fair, but you have to release it to someone who is going to write the cheque, i.e., in this case the government,” Risley tells The Notebook.
“I think where they might look for some degree of action in all of this — look at Zita Cobb and her world-class (resort) facility on Fogo Island (Newfoundland). That is more difficult to get to, much more difficult than the links at Inverness, way more difficult,” says Risley. “And she has been after an airport there for a very long time and she is full all the time, too. And after a very long time they (governments) have agreed to some nominal improvements to a dirt runway, which one of those Beech aircraft can fly in from Halifax.
“But that is taking baby steps, She asked the federal government years ago to put up $6-$7 million to put a 5,000 paved runway for a jet, and the feds recoiled at the prospect of doing that, and have finally come around to taking baby step (improvements) towards this,” adds Risley.
“What can we do to prove up the business case (at Inverness)? Is it stationing a helicopter in Port Hawkesbury? Well, no, that is not going to do something for the golf course if it is already full. Then you have to say, why am I going to spend $18 million for the purpose of boosting tourism in western Cape Breton Island? Then I would go out to the western Cape Breton tourism members and say, ‘If I was going to give you $18 million to try to boost your business, how would you want me to spend that?’ That’s a lot of friggin’ money.
“I don’t want to come across as being someone who is negative. I think they have built something that is a tremendous asset for Nova Scotia and the region, and they should be congratulated and the federal and provincial governments should be very supportive,” he notes.
“Now, does that degree of support translate into writing an $18 million cheque, plus the very considerable operating costs, or is there some step towards that that the governments can take to be demonstrative of support but not cost $18 million? Maybe they subsidize the helicopter service,” suggests Risley.
“You have a deserving party here and what is it we can help boost both the party and the region, that makes good economic sense?”
Recently, retired Conservative politician Elmer MacKay, a cabinet minister in the former Brian Mulroney government, told The Notebook that spending $18 million in an airport would be “mindless” use of taxpayers dollars. He, too suggests a better solution is a helicopter service from Port Hawkesbury and Sydney airports.
Port Hawkesbury mayor Brenda Chisholm Beaton tells The Notebook that two fledgling helicopter services are now operating out of Cape Breton’s two existing airports.
Yet, prominent economic development professor Donald Savoie of New Brunswick, a founder of the Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency, is supporting construction of an Inverness airport.
In recent years, Savoiee wrote a must-read book on the life and times of French fry billionaire Harrison McCain.
Corporate and private jets at the Port Hawkesbury Allan J. MacEachen Regional Airport, a one-hour car drive from Cabot Links.
In that book, which I read over a one-week hospital stay in recent years, Savoie noted Harrison and brother Wallace in 1958-59 received up to $8 million in loans from government to build their innovative frozen French fries plants in Florenceville.
That was good money spent wisely, when you consider McCain Foods is now a $8 billion revenue generating giant on the global frozen food scene. And, Risley at Clearwater has received lots of government grants and loans over the decades, and his company is now successful and employing thousands and thousands.
“That’s the point, if you think of McCain Foods, and I would again add John Bragg’s name to that with Oxford Frozen Foods, and the jobs and what he has done for agriculture, whether it be blueberries or carrots in Atlantic Canada, and the degree of support he has. There were business cases associated with those investments, and those business cases made sense — and that is why government can go to the table,” Risley explains.
“Again, what is the business case for this airport? And if there is a good business case that deserves support, make the business case, and there are elements of that which have to be made public, not all the confidential information, but I think if it is taxpayers dollars, you think of Bragg’s operation and McCains Foods, you would say, ‘Okay, the business case is this, the airport is costing $18 million, and replace that with a French fry or blueberry plant, and say we’re going to give you $3 million in grants and $7 million in loans, and you have to repay it, and you have to put up the remaining $7 million, then that is all public information'”, he says.
“What is not public is how much money they are going to make with the plant. that is fair enough. But if they are going to build an airport, who is going to pay for it?”
Cabot Links co-owners Ben Cowan-Dewar and Mike Keiser do not plan to put any of their own money into an airport project.
“I have a big problem with that,” says Risley, “because if you really want the airport, and if you really are convinced it was going to do a lot for you, and the area and for the attractiveness of your resort, then it seems to me you have to say I can’t obviously afford the airport, that is a public service investment, but it is really important for me, and I’ll write a cheque for a $1 million because that is a lot of money for me, and that will show the extent I am committed to this because I am prepared to put up some money on my own. Then I would tip my hat”, says Risley.
“But just to come along and say, hey someone else pay for the airport because I want the benefit of it, I struggle with that,” Risley tells The Notebook.