Cape Breton town writes to prime minister opposing funds for airport

PORT HAWKESBURY, N.S. — The mayor of a Cape Breton town has formally advised the Prime Minister's Office about her "grave concerns" over a proposal to fund an airport that would service a major golf resort on the island's west coast.

"We believe two airports, one hour apart, is not what rural Cape Breton and the Strait region need," wrote Brenda Chisholm-Beaton, the mayor of Port Hawkesbury, in a June 12 note to Justin Trudeau's office.

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She said it would be "both short-sighted and irresponsible" to provide millions of dollars to the golfing resort's air service plan at a time when the Allan J. MacEachen airport has been revived by years of municipal support.

A proposal from the Cabot Links golf resort is asking federal and provincial governments to help create an airport that would bring golfers closer to their location and the sister course at Cabot Cliffs.

Premier Stephen McNeil has said the provincial and federal governments are prepared to consider funding the Inverness County airport as a joint infrastructure project.

Specific figures haven't been provided, and the resort's manager did not return a call requesting comment on details.

Asked about the town's concerns, McNeil pointed this week to the transformation that the Cabot Links resort has brought to the tourism economy in the region in recent years, with hundreds of jobs tied to the seasonal luxury golf destination.

"If there's public infrastructure that can support ... that growth I think it's something all governments should look at," said the premier.

Still, Chisholm-Beaton has argued the Allan J. MacEachen airport would lose vital business if the new project came to fruition.

The mayor's letter cites a list of businesspeople who are flying into the Port Hawkesbury airport on private planes, as well as medical evacuation services, armed forces flights, provincial Department of Lands and Forestry flights, the RCMP and geophysical survey flights.

The 44-year-old municipal leader also said the huge boom in private flights helped attract a local entrepreneur, Dave Morgan, who created Celtic Air Services to run the airport.

It has since added a hangar and new terminal building, launched a North American marketing campaign and introduced helicopters to its suite of services.

Morgan "provides the kind of professional services and atmosphere that airport clientele, particularly affluent golfing customers, expect," wrote the mayor.

Chisholm-Beaton says federal dollars would be better applied in improving roads between the existing airport and the thriving resort.

Last week, John Brassard, the Conservative MP for Barrie-Innisfil, Ont., criticized the Liberals in the House of Commons regarding reports of up to $18 million being sought for the project.

"Why is the prime minister putting this community asset at risk to accommodate his elite millionaire friends?" Brassard asked.

However, the Liberal MP for Cape Breton-Canso said the decade-old idea for an airport tied to the golf resort would provide a service that is part of a wider transformation of the western coast of the island.

Rodger Cuzner says the Port Hawkesbury airport doesn't have scheduled flights, a key void that the Inverness proposal would fill — potentially bringing a fresh cohort of golfers to the region.

"Cape Bretoners always appreciate when someone from Ontario who knows nothing about it sticks his nose in their business," Cuzner said in Parliament in response to Brassard.

"There is a private airport in Port Hawkesbury. There are no scheduled flights into that airport. The project in Cabot Links has put over 700 people to work specifically there.

"The unemployment rate was at 25 per cent when I was first elected in 2000 and what is going on, on the west side of the island is absolutely spectacular."

The MP says most of the clients at Cabot Links currently fly into the Halifax airport and make a four-hour trek to the course, a distance that reduces the potential clientele of the course.

The federal minister of rural economic development, Bernadette Jordan, was unavailable for comment.

Her office sent an email stating: "the government of Nova Scotia has submitted the project to department officials for consideration.

"That evaluation is ongoing."

- By Michael Tutton in Halifax. Follow @mtuttoncporg on Twitter.

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