19 Jul Air Access in Western Cape Breton
Through the efforts of many tourism operators and effective promotion, Western Cape Breton has experienced transformational growth over the last ten years. Nowhere is the positive economic impact of these efforts more evident than in the village of Inverness itself, fuelled by the development of high end golf courses, Cabot Links and Cabot Cliffs. New businesses are opening to serve the staff and visitors at these new developments, and the community is bustling with activity. The number one issue facing businesses in this region is no longer finding ways to attract customers; now the challenge is finding ways to attract/retain employees to meet the increasing customer base. It’s a growth pattern for rural Cape Breton that deserves to be celebrated and supported.
Air travellers to Western Cape Breton are arriving primarily via Halifax Stanfield International Airport, JA Douglas McCurdy Sydney Airport, and Allan J. MacEachen Port Hawkesbury Airport (located in Port Hastings). For Western Cape Breton’s local airport in Port Hastings, the golf courses and their spin-off developments have been a boon to growth; the increasing opportunity eventually attracted a private sector company to take over a management agreement with the Town of Port Hawkesbury who owned the airport. Under the management of Celtic Air Services since 2017, the Allan J. MacEachen Airport has grown significantly, providing a high quality service to travellers and industry across Cape Breton Island.
The news last month of a potential new airport has created a divide in the local community and province, largely due to the proposed investment of public funds in the facility. $18 million has been proposed to build a new airport 85km to the north of the existing airport in Port Hastings (through a combination of contributions from the Government of Canada and the Province of Nova Scotia). The business model outlined by proponents of the new development is based on creating a thriving tourism hub in Western Cape Breton – a cluster model that Destination Canada points to as a way to grow and diversify our nation’s tourism offerings. The proponents predict a compelling opportunity: over 600 direct and indirect full-time jobs, $42.7 million in direct and spin-off GDP, $26.7 million in direct and spin-off household income, and $6.4 million in government tax revenues.
That both the federal and provincial governments are interested in investing $18 million in our region’s tourism economy is exciting. There will always be other service-based priorities in which government need to invest, but the bottom line is that without growth in our business community (and resulting tax base), residents of Nova Scotia will see ever-shrinking budgets to try to meet the needs of our citizens with regards to health care, roads, education, etc.
The Strait Area Chamber of Commerce represents over 350 businesses in rural Cape Breton. The Chamber has developed policies that provide a framework for major projects to be successful economically as well for the community . The Chamber’s expectation is that any public sector investment will be the result of complete and transparent processes that include, but are not limited to: 1) safety/environmental impact assessment, 2) public consultation, including with First Nations stakeholders, and 3) feasibility/economic impact studies that focus on long-term sustainability and potential ongoing funding requirements. As an extension of this, our expectation is also that government ensures public investment does no real harm to existing businesses in the region – a competitive impact analysis should be a cornerstone of any decision-making process involving public funds.
Even without in-depth analysis, it’s apparent that a new airport will certainly have a negative impact on several existing businesses in Western Cape Breton, including Celtic Air Services and the Allan J MacEachen Airport (and the businesses which supply it). Furthermore, a critical component of the value proposition that the Strait Area and rural Cape Breton has in attracting new investment is the presence of a year-round, 24/7 airport facility. The industrial base upon which the original business plan for the current airport was built has shifted with the loss of several major businesses since the 1970s, making the growing tourism base a critical component of its sustainability. The current facility positions our region as a diversified transportation hub, meeting the needs of both industrial and tourism investors. The removal of tourism/golf traffic from the business model at this facility will leave its long-term viability in question.
Our communities cannot afford to focus on what divides us, to undermine the viability of critical infrastructure, nor to turn down the opportunity for growth. The most successful publicly funded initiatives are those with broad based support in addition to a thorough, detailed and transparent business case and governance model.
The Strait Area Chamber of Commerce is encouraging all stakeholders involved in, and impacted by, the potential new airport development in Inverness County to collaborate on a win/win opportunity for air access and growth on Cape Breton Island. Both the federal and provincial governments have an opportunity to lead a full and open discussion about air access solutions to support the development of a world-class tourism hub in Western Cape Breton. We urge funding partners and the private sector to work together to develop a comprehensive strategy, supported by the community and local governments, that benefits all existing and future businesses, and invest together for success.