Port Hawkesbury ramps up campaign against new Inverness airport

Town officials in Port Hawkesbury, N.S., are ramping up their campaign against efforts by local golf courses to build a new airport in Inverness County.

Port Hawkesbury Mayor Brenda Chisholm-Beaton is seeking support across Cape Breton Island for what she calls a collaborative airport project to protect the town's local airport from being squeezed out.

She is approaching municipalities, First Nations, private air companies and the owners of Cabot Links and Cabot Cliffs golf courses seeking support for the existing airports in Port Hastings and Sydney.

Chisholm-Beaton said both of those airports have fledgling helicopter companies that could help improve tourism for everyone without pitting communities against each other.

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"I think with strategically placed helipads, we could connect even the farthest reaches of the island of Cape Breton in a way that I think would truly grow our island based on collaboration instead of competition," she said.

Chisholm-Beaton said there may be a way to achieve the goals of a new airport without building a new one.

"We want to understand what those outcomes look like, and can we check off all the boxes for them with our existing air assets, because I think it's important to position all of our stakeholders for growth," she said.

Cape Breton Regional Municipality has already lent its support to the collaborative airport idea.

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CBRM is also considering building a helipad at its downtown cruise ship terminal, where construction is underway on a second berth.

Mayor Cecil Clarke said that project is coming together quickly.

"It's a helipad and there's minimal requirements, and the capital work that would be necessary, we're not talking hundreds of thousands of dollars," he said.

"This could be in the vicinity of $100,000 to $150,000."

Targeting cruise visitors

Clarke said if the project goes ahead, it could take cruise ship visitors to island golf courses or other locations.

It could also be helpful in emergencies and would fit into the collaborative airport approach being promoted by Port Hawkesbury, he said.

"These are the types of things that you have to have as part of a regional airport and port strategy that we can all benefit from," Clarke said.

The golf course owners have applied for federal and provincial funding to build a new airport close to their golf operations.

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They say it would be funded entirely by government money, but that it would benefit the entire region, not just the golf courses.

The Allan J. MacEachen Airport in Port Hastings is owned by the Town of Port Hawkesbury, about an hour's drive from Inverness. It accepts charter flights, but is not serviced by commercial carriers.

Its operator, Celtic Air Services, also offers helicopter flights on the west side of the island.

The J.A. Douglas McCurdy Sydney Airport is in Cape Breton Regional Municipality, about two hours away from Inverness by car. It is served by commercial flights from Halifax, Toronto and Montreal.

A new company, Breton Air, opened there this year, also offering charter helicopter flights. Clarke said that company is involved in talks to build a helipad at the Sydney cruise terminal.

The golf course has said most fly-in golfers land in Halifax and take a four-hour shuttle to Inverness.

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The proponents recently posted their business case on the Build Cape Breton website, saying with a new airport, international visitors would be able to fly in and spend more time at other area tourist destinations instead of spending time in a shuttle.

Neal Livingston, an Inverness County resident and co-chair of the Margaree Environmental Association, said the business case is short on data.

"It's the second in a series, alongside the Build Cape Breton website, in what we think is just a smokescreen for Cabot golf courses having an airport to serve them being built with public money," he said.

Livingston said federal infrastructure money would be better spent on year-round tourism projects other than golf.