[SYDNEY, NS] — The Ben Eoin Marina will enhance recreational opportunities in the region and won’t just benefit a privileged few, its chair says.
Robert Sampson met with reporters to discuss the project at the Cape Breton County Economic Development Authority boardroom, with officials from CBCEDA, Enterprise Cape Breton Corp. and the Cape Breton Partnership on hand. He released documents related to the marina project, including its business plan, projected financial statements and engineering feasibility study.
ECBC’s $4-million grant to the $4.8-million marina project — which will operate cooperatively with Ski Ben Eoin and The Lakes golf club — has drawn criticism from some observers who believe it only serves to develop a private playground for the privileged.
“That would be akin to me saying I don’t have anyone in my life playing hockey, I get cold when I go in a rink, so why would the government dare spend money on Centre 200, or why would the government dare spend money on the Northside? I don’t play soccer, why would they dare invest in that kind of infrastructure?” Sampson said.
The project was not about directly creating employment, ECBC acting CEO Marlene Usher said, but creating a critical mass of tourism infrastructure.
Sampson said the marina will open the Bras d’Or Lake to boaters, who will then support local businesses by buying groceries and other supplies. The project was designed to complement existing facilities, he said.
“People will put the spin on it, ‘Jeez, you’re building it for an exclusive few,’ and I scratch my head and say how come I always look at things differently. I think we’re building something to open up the Bras d’Or Lakes,” Sampson said.
“How many times have you guys driven up No. 4 highway in the summertime, honestly, and looked at the lakes and said ‘I can’t believe I can’t see a boat here.’ Well, the reason you can’t see a boat is not because there’s not hundreds of people who can’t afford to buy a boat, who don’t want to buy a boat — they have nowhere to keep it.”
Seven of the 74 berths will be left open for members of the public. That was determined in consultation with other marinas in Cape Breton.
An integral part of the marina is that it will provide a public boat launch, Sampson said.
He said discussions of a marina development and golf course at Ben Eoin date back more than a decade. He first got involved in the project in the mid-1990s. Two large tracts of land came onto the market that were critical to the course development.
“We had to buy all the land, we didn’t specifically buy the marina land,” he said.
The initial plan would have seen two golf course holes on the water side of the road, but it would have required construction of a tunnel under the road, something the province wouldn’t consider unless the group fronted the $300,000 cost. They were eventually able to get enough land to place all 18 holes on one side of Highway 4.
In 2004, the Cape Breton Growth Fund approved $3.5 million for the project, Sampson said, contingent on both the marina and golf course proceeding at the same time.
Through the sale of shares, the group was able to raise $6 million for the golf course, and they asked the growth fund for permission to proceed with the golf course alone.
“Because of the amount of money we had to raise to get the golf course, we realized and we thought we were being prudent, and I think they accepted the fact that we were being prudent, that to take on both of these at the same time was just biting off more than we could handle,” Sampson said.
They also looked at funding the marina through private investment at that time, but that led to abandoning the project for a time. While it’s projected the marina will run in the black, it’s not expected to generate a large amount of money, whereas there are greater revenue opportunities with the golf course, Sampson said.
The golf course subsequently opened in 2010, a year behind schedule. Once the golf course project was in hand, Sampson along with Sandy MacNeill turned their attention to the marina.
They turned to ECBC, which indicated it wouldn’t act on the file until its marina study was updated, which was completed in January 2010.
“Part of the marketing concept was the ability to leverage the Bras d’Or Lakes to not only enhance the Bras d’Or Lakes, but to enhance marina structures that were directly connected,” Sampson said.
ECBC agreed to help the group look at whether a marina could be constructed at the site. The group was able to have one environmental assessment completed to satisfy both the provincial and federal governments. They hoped to start construction in 2011, but that was delayed a year.
“This is a community project, this isn’t intended to end up with globs of money in a bank account. This is intended to create a piece of infrastructure that we can run efficiently and make sure that we can pay our way, and that was the promise in the application.”
An engineering study found the project would cost about $4.5 million. Ben Eoin Marina did its own assessment and scaled back some plans, including the marina building, reducing the cost to $3.8 million, with a $200,000 contingency.
Sampson said they exceeded environmental requirements in construction. They hired an engineer to oversee the contractor during the dredge. In response to concerns from some residents about what would happen downstream following the construction of berms, they hired an engineering company which produced a report indicating they didn’t anticipate any environmental concerns.
Sampson said the project was approved in November 2011. The funding was announced publicly in late October 2012.
The approval was conditional on the land being conveyed to ECBC.
It was also conditional on the completion of environmental approvals and a projection of how it would work with the golf course and ski hill.
All components of the project were tendered and most were awarded to local companies at the lowest cost, Sampson said.
The project will contribute $250,000 in municipal taxes and will support a $1-million payroll, he said.
The Cape Breton Post had requested a copy of the marina’s business plan from Sampson about a month ago, but he indicated there were a number of documents involved and he wasn’t initially sure where he could find them, as it had been several years since they were prepared. The Post asked if he would consent to ECBC releasing the document, and he agreed, however ECBC’s ability to release it based on Sampson’s consent was complicated because the document also contained a great deal of information about The Lakes golf course.
The Post was then directed to approach Sandy MacNeill of Ben Eoin Marina, who indicated that he was busy with his business, but would provide the documents by a given date. That date passed without them being provided and the Post was subsequently unable to get an update from MacNeill on its request for the information.
On Feb. 13, the Post filed a formal request under Access to Information to obtain the business plan from ECBC. A phone message was also left Wednesday for Sampson seeking the documents.