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Debt-ridden Port Hawkesbury airport a possibility, says mayor

Cabot Links golf resort wants an $18-million commercial airport built just five kilometres northeast of Inverness using government money. However, Port Hawkesbury insists that proposal would put its own Allan J. MacEachen airport out of business as the financing model would be unsustainable as it would lose air traffic to Inverness. The town's mayor, Brenda Chisholm-Beaton, says she has the numbers to prove it.
Cabot Links golf resort wants an $18-million commercial airport built just five kilometres northeast of Inverness using government money. However, Port Hawkesbury insists that proposal would put its own Allan J. MacEachen airport out of business as the financing model would be unsustainable as it would lose air traffic to Inverness. The town's mayor, Brenda Chisholm-Beaton, says she has the numbers to prove it. - Chris Shannon

Opening a rival airport in Inverness will bring on all kinds of hurt, according to Brenda Chisholm-Beaton

SYDNEY, N.S. —

The Town of Port Hawkesbury has laid out a financial forecast of the airport it owns in the event an airport near Inverness is approved, and it paints a picture of red ink.

The projected financial statement assumes the operator of the Allan J. MacEachen Port Hawkesbury Airport is forced out of business and the surrounding municipalities must step in to keep it open.

The federal government is considering a funding application by Cabot Links golf resort to build an $18-million seasonal airport in Inverness to cater to tourists in western Cape Breton.

Celtic Air Services has managed the Port Hawkesbury airport for the past two years as part of a 10-year arrangement with the town, and municipalities of Inverness and Richmond.

Port Hawkesbury Mayor Brenda Chisholm-Beaton's office released a projected financial statement with a $247,500 annual shortfall if all golf-related traffic was diverted to an airport in Inverness and the three municipalities had to pay for the Port Hawkesbury airport’s operating expenses.

Adding capital expenses to the mix would cost an extra $200,000 a year, the one-page statement indicated, because of $3.4 million in “urgent infrastructure improvements” based on a consultant’s analysis of the airport’s capital needs.

“If we had three funding municipalities that we’ve historically had, I’m not certain that a three-way split of that amount is sustainable,” Chisholm-Beaton said.

Over time, it would not be a workable business model for the airport or the bottom line of the municipalities, she added.

The data, compiled by Port Hawkesbury’s chief financial officer Erin MacEachen, shows projected total revenue of $134,000, the bulk of which would be fuel sales at $110,000. Landing fees and rentals would only make up $19,000 of that estimate.

“This gives a little bit of an idea of what were we selling in fuel to non-tourism airport users (prior to Celtic Air Services),” Chisholm-Beaton said.

“We were trying to look at, if we were to pluck out that lucrative season of private jet landings at the Allan J. and they were to be diverted to another airport, what would that look like in terms of how this airport could operate.”

Celtic Air Services president David Morgan said gross annual revenue for 2018 was in the range of $1.5 million to $2 million.

Last year, the company, which welcomes mostly affluent visitors on private jets, said it serviced more than 1,000 flights — three quarters of which carried passengers visiting Cabot’s golf courses.

The airport also provides 24-hour-a-day services for EHS Lifeflight aircraft, the Department of Lands and Forestry and the Canadian Coast Guard.

The increase in air traffic has meant the Port Hawkesbury airport no longer required a subsidy of $37,000 a year from each of the three municipalities. Inverness County stopped its annual subsidy in 2016.

Instead, Port Hawkesbury and Richmond County continue to contribute to a capital reserve fund to address runway maintenance among other issues. Inverness County also contributed $25,000 this year to support capital upgrades at the airport.

The long-range future of the airport appears to be dim if the proposed Inverness airport receives the necessary money from the federal and provincial governments to begin construction, according to Chisholm-Beaton.

No federal government money has been forthcoming to the Port Hawkesbury airport in recent years despite applications submitted and then rejected by the Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency.

She said the financial projections for the airport will be forwarded to the senior levels of government.

The Port Hawkesbury airport has never been able to attract commercial passenger traffic from any of the major airlines in its 50-year history.

In an interview Wednesday, Cabot Links co-founder and managing director Ben Cowan-Dewar said the airport is simply located in the wrong place, two kilometres from the Canso Causeway.

“It was built with federal taxpayer dollars 50 years ago. …It has not garnered commercial service and I think the reality of a connecting flight for people landing in Halifax to fly to Port Hawkesbury doesn’t necessarily get them to the tourism assets that are highlighted in Travel + Leisure.”

Last week the U.S. magazine named Cape Breton the number one island destination in continental North America and ranked it in eighth place worldwide.

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