Reshaping Inverness, Nova Scotia
James Mullinger meets Ben Cowan-Dewar
It is Saturday night. There is a fiddler playing, and The Cabot Public House is packed to the rafters. Some are dancing. Some are dining on world class food. Some are laughing. All are smiling. The pub sits between Cabot Links golf course and the main street of Inverness on Cape Breton Island. It boasts a stunning view of both the course and the Atlantic Ocean. It is hardly surprising that the atmosphere is reminiscent of that of an old English pub after England have won a World Cup game.
Inverness is like this most nights. Half the people in the pub are locals, happy they have a gastropub to rival any in North America. And equally happy that their town is in the middle of a huge resurgence. The other half have flown into Halifax and taken a Mercedes SUV to come to two golf courses hailed as among the best in the world. Over an extended weekend, The Maritime Edit met visitors from all across America, China, Japan and England.
It wasn’t always this way.
In 2010, Inverness was a mining town that hadn’t had a mine for almost five decades. Population was steadily declining. For tourists to Cape Breton, it barely registered as a place to visit.
But that all changed with the creation of the Cabot Links golf course (and its even more beautiful cousin down the road, Cabot Cliffs). The result has been described as an economic miracle, and it is hard to disagree.
As Andrew Alkenbrack, the general manager at Cabot told The Maritime Edit: “The community of Inverness has always had an incredibly strong and resourceful collection of people. In response to the economic downturn that came with the closing of the coal mines, the community began looking for ways to breathe new life into it. The idea of bringing golf to Inverness has always been community led and as such, bringing Cabot to life has fostered a tremendous partnership, and an incredible sense of pride within our area. To see the positive growth that has occurred here since we opened our doors here is a great point of pride. With the entrepreneurial spirit alive and well, and people arriving in larger numbers than ever, I am confident that this is just the beginning.”
Traditionally, links courses were located on the least valuable land between farm land and the sea. Unlike many links courses, Cabot Links is nestled within the town of Inverness. You are walking distance to everything. Grocery stores. Liquor stores. Sandy beaches. Which means that residential and commercial sectors are growing constantly.
Why did things work so perfectly? By being world-class in a small town. By never compromising in the pursuit of perfection. The facts speak for themselves. Golf Digest names Cabot Links number 43 on their prestigious list of the world’s 100 greatest golf courses. Cabot Cliffs is number 9, and ScoreGolf rates it the best course in Canada.
Leading the way was Ben Cowan-Dewar, an Ontario-born golf pro who saw potential where no other entrepreneur did. A man who believed, even when no one believed him. The Maritime Edit’s Editor-in-Chief met with Ben at Cabot Links to discover how you turn a sleepy, former mining town into a world-class destination.
The Maritime Edit: Is there a secret to effective tourism strategy?
Ben Cowan-Dewar: Well, what we know from extensive research is that it’s a slow process between someone hearing about a place and deciding to actually check it out. You hear about it. You hear about it again. You hear about it. There’s some word of mouth. Then you read about it. And at some point there’s the tipping point and you decide to go.
The Maritime Edit: What first brought you to Inverness?
Ben: At a dinner in Toronto in March 2004 I was seated next to Rodney MacDonald, who was minister for tourism at the time and whose riding was Inverness. He told me, “There’s a great site for a golf course in my riding.” I said, “Minister, with all due respect every farmer thinks they have the next great site for a golf course.” I was sort of joking but sort of not. And he said that since 1969 the community had sought to turn this coal mine into a golf course. Jack Nicklaus [the noted American golfer] had done a routing plan for it. Mike Stranz [one of the greatest American golf architects] called it one of the 50 greatest sites left in the world for golf.
So it wasn’t an original idea at all. Many attempts hadn’t quite gotten across the finish line. I didn’t think much of it as Rodney talked about it. But I followed up and I saw photos of it from a helicopter. They were two-dimensional and you didn’t get a sense of the contour of the land, but what you could see was a mile of sand beach, a coastline and this town on the inside of this rectangular piece of land. I had been fortunate enough to play most of the great links courses in Scotland and Ireland and England and Wales so I thought, “Where in the world — let alone in Canada in 2004 — could you find a piece of links land that a town already existed on.”
It doesn’t make sense that in the year 2000 somebody hadn’t built anything on the edge of the water in Inverness. I thought that was serendipitous. If one person had had a driveway or a house at the end, it would have meant that we couldn’t do it. It hadn’t happened because of the coal mine that was there from 1880 to 1953. Then it sat unremediated for 50 years. Rodney had gone on to become the premier of Nova Scotia. He pushed to get the mine remediated. So the province remediated it in 2003, and that set the stage for golf.
So I came in December 2004 for the first time, and it was a beautiful day. It was sunny and I thought we would be playing golf there by Christmas. I was 25 and had my rose-coloured glasses on, but I was immediately captured by the site. I stood out on the high point and was met by this group of volunteers who had all dedicated so much time over a long period of time (from 1994 to 2004 at that point) to try and get this to be a golf course. So I was taken with it, and it seemed an obvious idea. I went home and told Ali we were going to build a golf course and she thought that seemed like a good idea. And my parents didn’t seem like it was a terrible idea, so the three people who should have told me it was insane didn’t. And away we went.
The Maritime Edit: What was the next step?
Ben: From December of 2004 it took us almost three years to assemble the land. There were a lot of parcels that made up the site, held by private landholders, the municipal government or the provincial government. Assembling the land was the hardest part, which is why the golf course hadn’t happened before. So we had a ceremony in November 2007 to announce that we had assembled all of the land.
The Maritime Edit: When did you move here?
Ben: Ali and I had lived in downtown Toronto, but we knew we were going to move here to develop the land so we moved in March 2008. Ali was 35 weeks pregnant at the time. We were also still building a house here. We arrived to an incomplete house with no windows so it was hugely stressful. In hindsight, it was a wildly aggressive idea to leave all your family to have a baby in Nova Scotia. But we started construction in the summer of 2008, and we stopped in the financial crisis, which was fairly devastating. It was a natural break because we weren’t going to be building during the winter anyway, but there was a lot of uncertainty as to whether we could resume. And then, in 2009, course designer Rod Whitman, with a really shoestring budget, rough-shaped the 18 holes that are now Cabot Links. With all the financial uncertainty and the Lehman Brothers bankruptcy, we were one of only four golf courses in the world that were under construction that summer. But by 2010 we were fairly sure that the world wasn’t going to end and that we had the making of something special.
It’s a relatively compact piece of land for golf – about 160 acres. But Rod got so much out of it. We had all these old routing plans, but what Rod was able to build was phenomenal.
The Maritime Edit: When did the shift in the town start happening? Was it before or after opening?
Ben: It was after opening. We opened June 29, 2012, with this lodge that Susan Fitzgerald had designed and the clubhouse by Brian MacKay-Lyons. And that’s all we opened – 48 rooms. The Omar Gandhi villas weren’t here, and we didn’t have the pub yet. There was still a healthy dose of skepticism, not just within the community but probably around the world. We were lucky enough to have a big New York Times cover the weekend we opened. It was a huge spotlight for us, and people started to come.
So a lot of the stuff that we see today in 2018 in the community really has happened in the past couple of years. Cabot Links was a bit of a curiosity and people were coming. Cabot Cliffs really got us to a place where we had the critical mass. In that first year of 2012 we had about 30 caddies and a handful of employees, and now we have over 300 caddies and 375 employees so that’s over 600 people in the community working at Cabot.
The Maritime Edit: And in a population of just double that. How was recruitment at the outset, and how has the process evolved?
Ben: What we had were unbelievable folks in the community willing to step up. In our first year, all of our caddies had university degrees. It was a combination of all these people locally who were really helping us more than we were helping them to make it happen. And that spirit has been a big part of the employment base from the outset. We employ anybody in the broader area that we can, and as we exhaust that local labour pool we have people come in. As the brand has gotten bigger and the accolades have come, it’s gotten easier. Our team has done an amazing job of finding the best people. Folks who are working at ski resorts who don’t have a summer season in the West. Or people with family ties to Cape Breton who came as kids because their grandmother was here, remember it fondly and have now found their way back. People are relocating from Alberta back to Inverness. It’s the inverse of the out-migration story, and that’s a delightful byproduct.
The Maritime Edit: Was Cabot Cliffs always part of the plan?
Ben: We always knew we wanted a second golf course. So we started optioning the first land at Cliffs before we started construction on Links. Really, that was an awareness that if we waited until we built Cabot Links we probably wouldn’t be able to afford it. Opening Cabot Links and getting the accolades and seeing people come, we knew that the second course would be crucial in really fortifying the destination. Almost everyone playing golf here is not from somewhere close by, given our relatively small population base. So Cliffs would be a second way to attract people. We always knew that the Cliffs site was so spectacular and such a beautiful landscape, so as long as we didn’t screw it up we would have something pretty special.
The Maritime Edit: Where do most people come from who stay here?
Ben: The Maritimes have always been a big market. They come from opening day to closing day. The American market makes up about half. The Ontario market, specifically Toronto, is pretty significant for us. When we started, only a few folks came from Ontario and the United States, but that evolved as the rankings came out saying it’s one of the best golf courses in the world. For the Maritimes, Cabot is relatively expensive to golf, but it’s remarkably inexpensive relative to anything else in the world in the top 100. So we straddle that balance. We still focus a lot on how we can retain Maritime customers, who have long supported us. We also get a small percentage of British golfers.
The Maritime Edit: When we drove in I was surprised by the attractive and new shop fronts and the beautiful branding for the town. How much involvement have you had with town of Inverness catching up to what you have done with Cabot?
Ben: On my first visits to the town I would ask people, “What do you think of the golf course,” and they would say, “That’s never going to happen.” I grew up in a rural community in Ontario so I understand the doubt. A bit of it is pragmatism, and a little bit of it is that it hasn’t happened in the 35 years that they’ve been talking about it so why should it happen now. When we opened, people were curious but weren’t quite clear what would come of all this. So I would say the pace of change within the broader community was slower than I would have guessed if you had asked me in 2008. But I think it really came along when there was that confluence of okay, this is a real draw; people are coming. And seeing the growth of our employee base and folks moving back from Alberta to come and live in the town, and people buying second homes here.
Local building contractors were probably the first to see the change in the amount of work they were getting. And that translated into a façade program a couple of years ago that businesses all signed up for. There was some support and some design narrative around the “Come to play” logo so it’s been a community-wide effort. It really took hold when everybody said, “It’s going to work; it’s going to happen.” And I’ve watched that transition since I first came here 14 years ago. It’s really phenomenal when you see what’s happened to the facades, what’s happened to the businesses, the new businesses that have opened. The fabric of the town has undeniably changed for the good.
The Maritime Edit: What makes Inverness unique?
Ben: I had come to Cape Breton as a child and with Ali before we were married a few times. But I didn’t know this side of the island. I’m biased — we have a home here and have lived here for many years — but it is such a glorious part of not just Cape Breton, which is already glorious, but also of the Maritimes and Canada as a whole. We have this beautiful sand beach that stretches from Inverness to Cliffs and warm ocean water, which is the byproduct of being on the Northumberland side of the Gulf of St. Lawrence. When I first came here, it was so shockingly beautiful to watch the sun set over the ocean and to smell the salt air.
What has been the greatest thing about this influx of folks from the U.S. and other parts of Canada and all over the world is that they all say how amazing the people are and how spectacular the landscape is. And I think that a huge group of people from outside the region can really buoy the spirits of locals by saying, “You live in a really remarkable place.” And that piece of it has been amazing to watch. From listening to the healthy skepticism as to whether there would ever really be a golf course to seeing the optimism creep in. And now looking forward to what more is to come and what more can be built.
The Maritime Edit: What can people in other places do to elevate their town?
Ben: It depends on what the goals are. But the one thing we know in Inverness is we are a long way from anywhere. And so if someone is going to take their valuable time — and it’s not an easy trip — why are they going to do that? They are going to do that for something that is exceptional. Does every community need a golf course? No, of course not. Inverness is the site of Cabot Links in the town and Cabot Cliffs just a mile away up the road, but they are a world apart in terms of experience, environment and landscape. We capitalized on that, what made this place exceptional. It’s all about focusing on what is unique that you can build around. I see that in what Zita has done on Fogo Island and Michael Smith with his feasts on PEI. If you go to the best restaurants in New York, you can find Nova Scotia lobster and PEI lobster. Why can’t we build something around that? Culinary is a huge driver. I think of Fundy and the tides. Weave a story around that. There are so many things, and it’s about capitalizing on what it is.
And staying authentic. Thankfully we have entered this period where tourists crave something that is authentic rather than something that looks like where they came from. Being true to the authentic, and being able to find those things. Each community has something; it’s really just all about building on that strength.
The Maritime Edit: What were the pleasant surprises were for you?
Ben: Watching the economic development success story. In December of 2004, I was 25-years old standing out on the high point, and I could envision a golf course. There was no way that I could predict all of what was to come. The number of folks who are gainfully employed and the town coming along. Those weren’t the reasons we did it, but they are a big part of the reason why we do it today.
You think about how to solve the plight of rural communities. Not just Cape Breton or Nova Scotia or the Maritimes. The whole world is seeing the same trend of urbanization. There are so many solutions in so many communities. Like John Bragg in Oxford with blueberries making a community thrive and surge.
To have a second act for a coalmining town that really wasn’t a tourist spot within the Cape Breton landscape is remarkable. I remember Rankin MacDonald, the editor of The Inverness Oran, our local paper, which he founded 40-plus years ago, talking about how people used to drive around Inverness because of the coal mine. Looking across the landscape today and seeing a golf course that people are coming from all points of the globe to see is magical. But what is happening in the community — people moving back and people finding prosperity — that is the most pleasant surprise. And the one that is the best part of doing this.
This story originally appeared in The Maritime Edit magazine. To subscribe, please click here.