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Highlands Links "is the latest in [Harper's] plan of depopulation."

The 15th green, with its bunkers recently restored.

The discussion of the privatization of Highlands Links continues, this time with an op-ed in the Chronicle-Herald written by Mark Anderson, who I think doesn’t really have much of a handle on the golf business. The op-ed is full of gems, including this one from Sydney-Victoria MP Mark Eyking:

(Prime Minister Stephen) Harper should understand better the importance of outlying areas, but instead he portrays seasonal workers as a part of what he calls a culture of defeatism in Atlantic Canada. “This move with the golf course is only the latest in his plan of forced depopulation, his plan to privatize rural Canada. The Conservatives wanted big companies to own the fisheries, and they ruined it. And now it’s the golf course.” Eyking laughed again when I mentioned that the park might offer other jobs to the 22 workers who have become “surplus.” “There are no jobs with Parks Canada. They are making massive cuts all over Canada. And at the same time Harper creates a new park in the Northwest Territories (Naats’ihch’oh). Why not look after existing parks. They have to rob all the other parks to pay for it. … It seems like northern Cape Breton is being punished for not voting Conservative.”

Eyking also says the fees for the course will likely double under a private operator. Guess what? He’s right — and maybe they should. Anyone know what a full season membership at Highlands Links — a Top 100 course in the world — costs? $790. Yep. That’s right. With taxes it is still less than $900. Even city memberships in London — where the courses don’t rival Highlands — are $1550 plus tax. So I’d suggest doubling isn’t a bad concept — and in fact would bring much needed revenue to the course. The story also talks to Ken Donovan, a former Parks Canada historian who is now retired and who has written about Highlands regularly since he was born in the region and maintains a residence there:

Local historian Ken Donovan has written on the subject of the original expropriations of farmland for the Highlands Links, one involving his father: “When Stanley Thompson came in to build the course, he looked at the farmlands they wanted to expropriate for the course and he said: ‘Let’s get these people on the payroll.’ And locals have been employed there since 1941. And all of a sudden that’s over.… These are people who went to war for the people that took their farms.” Donovan also struck a similar chord with Eyking, speaking about the negative impact the Conservative government is having on rural Canada.

It is an interesting point — but I’d suggest the course has benefited those who have lived there for many years. If it is going to continue to do so, things have to change. Harping about something that happened before the second World War doesn’t really make much sense — or really add to the debate of what should be done with Highlands. But the biggest fallacy of Anderson’s article comes early on:

This has been a major cause of concern to many in the area, as 22 full-time and many part-time jobs will be deemed “surplus.” The “Jewel of the Highlands” is a major draw to this economically depressed region; with private management it will not be subject to the same high standards that brought it to the ranking of Canada’s best golf course (2002).

The suggestion that Highlands has been held to “high standards” under the government is laughable.
Highlands Links was regarded as the best in Canada for a short time. Since that point most of the discussion has been about government mismanagement and how the lack of industry-trained staff has kept the course from being  maintained in keeping with its lofty status. There’s no superintendent at Highlands — nor has there been in most of a decade. Name another course of its status that operates without a super? And yes, GM Graham Hudson has done a commendable job trying to restore the course but that was only after the government let it fall into a horrible state of disrepair.
Word is that New Castle Hotels and Resorts, which already operates the Keltic Lodge, is looking closely at Highlands. But I’m also hearing the management of New Castle would want huge government investment in the hotel and lodge as part of the deal, something I’ve heard from others as well.
In the meantime, no one can plan for next year at Highlands, leaving all marketing up in the air.

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Robert Thompson

A bestselling author and award-winning columnist, Robert Thompson has been writing about business and sports, and particularly golf, for almost two decades. His reporting and commentary on golf has appeared in Golf Magazine, the Globe and Mail, T&L Golf and many other media outlets. Currently Robert is a columnist with Global Golf Post, golf analyst for Global News and Shaw Communications, and Senior Writer to ScoreGolf. The Going for the Green blog was launched in 2004.

13 CommentsLeave a comment

  • Well, Robert, I think you are missing quite a few things here. C.B. is NOT southern Ontario. But regardless, I see London municipal greens fees being offered at $41 – $28. I see Kitchener at $42 – $32 and memberships at $1310. No doubt those also are subsidized by the relevant taxpayers. There is no way that the area has the golfing population to bring in more members at double the cost to play at a course even if the “standards” are higher.
    The problem is that the rest of us want these C.B. courses to be destination courses where we can come and play and enjoy magnificent surroundings at a fraction of the cost we would pay in Upper Canada or B.C. How that will benefit local employment – and the local economy – well, let me know when you figure it out.
    I am not surprised that any prospective owner would seek government support. Do you see Ben Cowan – Dewar and Mike Keiser stepping up and saying we’ll take this on? And what about the thousands of folks who trek their kids around the Cabot Trail each year and Dad or Mum would love to stop at Ingonish and play a round, but maybe not at $175?

  • Off-topic, but looking at the photo of the 15th green reminds me how badly someone needs to sneak over to the church parking lot in the middle of the night with a chainsaw and cut down that little copse of birch trees. They totally obscure the stunning view of Ingonish (Whale) Island from the green!

  • Back on-topic, has Parks Canada even considered doing the “right” thing and turning Highlands Links over to the Club and its members for a minimal dollar amount? If the Government’s main concern is to dump money-losing entities, would it not be in everyone’s best interest to turn over control of the golf course to the people who have the biggest stake in its future?
    The vast amounts of capital wouldn’t be available immediately, as would likely be the case if a large resort chain took over, but upgrades could be done gradually, on an ongoing basis, just like any other semi-private club in existence. Daily green fees and membership levies could – and should – be raised to accomplish this.
    Surely it would be a much less bitter pill to swallow for the unionized workers.
    Why not let the members, many of whom are descendants of the farmers evicted from that very land, be the stewards of Highlands Links?

    • Chris, I believe Northumberland Links was sold to the members for $1. I have no idea what their finances are but, it would be worth investigating. It is a different model with more local (and seasonal residents) play and less tourist play than Highlands. Perhaps you are correct with membership ownership much in the way some courses in Scotland have very cheap membeships which are happily subsidized by those who go and visit from North America.

      The problem with Highlands is whether or not it even turns an operating profit never mind having funds to reinvest in continuous improvements. What will a membeship owned course (even for a dollar cost) do when it loses $x in a year? Who finances the loss? It will be left with the same tough decisions as a private operator without the benefit of knocking on the premier’s door to cover the loss or having deep pockets of its own to draw from.

      Only two ways to pay for things – raise more revenue and/or cut costs. I think there is some room to raise revenue and also bring costs into line with what other golf courses pay for labour. From a business model, it is a tough sell. Isolation and a short season are not two things in Highlands favour. Hopefully some of the golfers drawn to Cabot will also want to make the drive up the trail.

      Despite the recent work done, the course still needs some TLC based on my last visit this past September. I felt I was teeing off on the top of crowns on over half the tee blocks. It needs finances to do so and I don’t believe the taxpayers should foot the bill simply to give some local residents well paying jobs paying more than the market rate for the same services.

      You would have to show me a pretty darn good business plan on a member owned model. My own course (member owned) as are many others, is now paying the price from a half century of neglect and under financing in order to keep current members fees low during the previous years. Huge capital improvments are being done at many clubs with large membership costs and risky financing propositions. Would the members of a member owned Highlands put up personal guarantees on any improvements if profits are not large enough?

      Perhaps I am wrong and Highlands does in fact make money. Anyone have a link to the financial statements of Highlands?

    • Colin — latest figures show a loss of about $500K, but that’s based on the current operating model where they can’t even sell their own merchandise, have no control over F&B or the staff. Apparently I’m hearing the new operator will need to build a maintenance building, which is costly.

  • It’s my understanding, and I may be wrong on this, is that one of the main reasons that Highlands Links fails to turn a profit is because all of its employees – even the marshals – are unionized Federal government employees who average well over $20 per hour in wages. The majority of these employees, as Robert points out, aren’t even industry-trained and in some cases have minimal expertise.
    If the Club were to replace these employees with knowledgeable, experienced “golf people”, whose salaries were more in line with industry standards, this would go a long way in both improving playing conditions & service at the course AND reducing operating expenses, hopefully leading to a more balanced budget for Highlands Links.

  • I think it is important to note that the approx $900 membership fee is taken advantage of by almost all who live in Ingonish or in the surrounding area. Most of these members woul be unlikely to afford the type of membership fee that you are advocating Robert. It is a good bargain, no doubt, for one of the best courses in Canada but it is also competitive with the fees charged at most of the rural golf courses in Nova Scotia. I golf at Paragon a course that has hosted numerous Provincial Championships and my membership fee is less than $800. I would think if you doubled or tripled such a fee you would end up making membership unavailable to most if not all of the present members at Highland Links. Thus resulting in a further loss of revenue. Why even Cabot Links gives a green fee break to Cape Bretoners. Really what has taken place is a slashing of services at National Parks all across this country. This I find objectionable, as I find many of the Prime Minister’s policies but that discussion is for another forum.

  • Put the course and the hotel site up for auction with operating/construction/development clauses and let the free market move this forward.
    Winner take all!!!!
    As the current shareholders is the Canadian public, transfering to locals for a $1 would be a massive mistake. It’s hard to divided $1 into 33 million.
    Rasie the dues and the locals will still join. Raise the green fees and guests will still come. Raise the conditioning and service (and cut down 10,000 more trees) at the Highlands and the economics will look after themselve.

  • Hey RT,
    Wow! If the individuals in this story had not been identified, I would have bet they were fictional characters.
    A) It is very apparent that Mr. Anderson does not know anything about golf, the real issues facing The Highlands or, how a ‘new clientele’ could end up benefiting the entire area around Ingonish. Let’s list the wrongs: a) “…private management will not be subject to the same high standards that brought it to the ranking of Canada’s best golf course (2002)”. b) While it is debatable whether or not CBHs should have had that title in the first place, it is quite apparent Mr. Anderson has not been to the course in some time. c) And what is a PhD in History doing/working in Ingonish?????
    B) Then he quotes a quack like MP Eyking. He too has NO clue what he is talking about. He is simply another talking head MP who ‘damns the facts’ in search of votes (and from the deep left).
    C) Eyking’s comment about the federal government “starving people out of outlying regions” is sincerely comical. We are paying to send this guy to Ottawa???? It is really hard to comprehend how someone with Eyking’s distorted view of reality can get elected to ANY post.
    The locals complaining about a price hike for their golf is SOP for the Cape. For decades they have been whining the loudest for federal dollars and not using them to benefit the area long term. Working for the Feds or the Provies is a cradle to grave mind set. Why do you think there are so many 3 and 4th generations working there??
    Most importantly, the locals must remember that this course belongs to all Canadians and not the locals of Ingonish. The same can be said for Jasper, Banff etc. The annual dues for CBH are a joke. If you were to go there for a 10 day holiday it would be cheaper to buy a membership than pay green fees! I actually met someone who was there for two weeks and did so.
    Your reader THB is obviously a local who asks whether the thousands who trek the Cape would pay $175? Probably not. It is very clear there aren’t thousands of folks stopping to play now! Why? The place is run down. The vistas are overgrown with trees and the course conditioning in that of a muni.
    The solution: Bring the conditioning to 2013 levels, open the site lines, provide visitors a decent place to stay (aside from the Cabot Lodge) and charge $175-200 per round. It will work. If the Feds did this and then put it up for sale they would receive market offers. The problem is the group is trying to produce a product that satisfies the locals and it ends up disappointing the visitors. The proof: Cabot Links has not targeted locals. The price is high. The product is good and, the people are coming (and paying).

  • Jun. 29 – Oct. 14

    Oct. 15 – Close

    Resort Guest

    $110

    $70

    Golf-Only Guest

    $130

    $95

    Replay*

    $55

    $50

    Cape Breton Resident Twilight Rate**

    $70

    $45

    Twilight Rate

    $90

    $65
    With these rates from Cabot Links, it is apparent they do offer a discount to the residents of Cape Breton. And their top rate is considerably less than $175 J.

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