Seeing the Forest from the Trees

“Excitement is building for what’s expected to be a multi-million dollar development along the Cabot Trail by a private firm with European connections.” — Cape Breton Post, 17 August 2019

That’s the opening to a Cape Breton Post article about Czech-born, New York-based developer Joseph Balaz (né Josef Baláž) and his plans for Ski Cape Smokey.

Evidence of this building excitement is limited to quotes from Victoria County Deputy Warden Larry Dauphinee who also chairs the non-profit Ski Cape Smokey Society which has operated the facility these past 25 years (and who, presumably, made a habit of recusing himself when council was asked to fund the group).

I have great admiration for the volunteers who have struggled to keep the lights on at Cape Smokey and I can understand why the prospect of snow-making equipment and a gondola might inspire a jig of unalloyed joy but as a professional skeptic, I feel I must kick the tires on this plan (or what little of it has been shared with us) to see how it holds up.


Strictly confidential

Let’s start with the announcement itself which, unless I missed some earlier coverage, arrived like a bolt from the blue last week although Balaz, Deputy Warden Dauphinee and Nova Scotia Business Minister Geoff MacLellan have clearly been in on the surprise for some time — Balaz’s Cape Smokey Holding Ltd was registered on 26 February 2019.

Given that Nova Scotians, not the provincial government, owned the 162 hectares that have been sold to Balaz for a whopping $370,000,  it seems to me we might have been invited to an information session on the project before the contract was signed. But that would require a degree of openness and transparency that simply does not exist in this province.

To prove my point — and for sheer devilment — I asked the Department of Business if I could see the sales agreement between Balaz’s firm and the province. Spokesperson Gary Andrea told me by email:

We would not release the sales agreement.

How too rude of me to ask.

Balaz, an engineer by training, has (ironically) been very open about his preference for secrecy. As he told Radio Praha in March this year:

When I established my own company [Joseph Balaz Associates or JBA] in ‘96 or something like that I worked for a couple of unique clients and those recommended me.

Then later when we worked for the recording studio called the Hit Factory and we were exposed to all these music stars, etc. – and eventually ended up with some projects for people in that industry and in the Hollywood industry, when we had to sign fairly strict non-disclosure agreements – I realized that we could turn it to our advantage and work with it.

Then we work for some people who are described as the old money of New York, or the captains of industry, Wall Street titans, etc., and those families also like to keep their private lives very, very private.

So we cannot say where these people and obviously we cannot show photographs or drawings, etc.

His bio on the website of the American Friends of the Czech Republic, of which he is a director, states:

JBA does not advertise in any form and intentionally maintains a low profile in the industry.  For new projects the firm relies solely on exclusive private introductions.

(I presume some academic has already looked into the startling similarities between Communist-style information control and corporate-style information control, but if not, someone really should.)

The secrecy extends to Balaz’s Cape Breton connections. According to the Post, Balaz:

…is believed to have lived in the Ingonish area for six years or more.

Dauphinee was more forthcoming, saying of Balaz:

“He fell in love with the area, and he purchased some property and has built a home here, so he’s here quite often,” said Dauphinee.

“They’re very much into being involved with the community and working with the community.”

Me, I’m hopelessly old school about community involvement. I say, if the community you claim to be involved with isn’t actually sure whether or not you live there, you are probably not as involved as you think you are.

And if Balaz’s “home” is the Red Head Cliffs development, it does not scream, “I am very involved in the local community!”

For one thing, it’s located “in a private gated 250-acre site” offering “ultimate privacy.”

For another,  the owners helpfully explain how the property can be accessed directly by helicopter from Sydney or Halifax:

And finally, it is both for rent — prices not mentioned — and for sale — price $12.5 million. (I checked with the real estate agent named in the listing and she assured me the property is still on the market.)

How this adds up to the home of a community stalwart is beyond me.


Skis & Trees

But let’s be fair and balanced: the development Balaz has planned for Ski Cape Smokey seems to be an entirely different kettle of fish.

According to Department of Business spokesperson Gary Andrea:

[T]he sale  good news for Cape Bretoners who will continue to enjoy the hiking, snowmobiling, and skiing at Smokey. Under the agreement the buyers, Cape Smokey Holding Ltd., say they will run the ski hill and want to transform it to a year-round destination. The deal has a condition to ensure continued community use for activities like hiking and snowmobiling and that the buyer will maintain and operate the property as a ski hill or other recreational or tourism operation. The buyers also have an option to subdivide a portion of the land for real estate development – about 20 to 25 per cent.

So, there is no guarantee the property will be operated as a ski hill, although Dauphinee told the Post Balaz planned to refurbish the ski lodge, bring in snow-making equipment and replace the decrepit ski lift with a gondola.

But the developer also plans to build a “Tree Walk” — a form of tourist attraction that doesn’t seem designed to attract rock stars and titans of industry. And one that seems to have blossomed and multiplied in the Czech Republic (CR) since I left in 2010. The picture used to illustrate Balaz’s concept was of a tree walk in Lipno-nad-Vltavo in the CR’s (lovely) Šumava region:

The 675-meter trail ends in a 40-meter observation tower from which you can descend via a 52-meter “dry toboggan run.”

The Lipno nad Vltavou tree walk was built by Zážitková Akademie (ZAK), a Czech subsidiary of the German concern Erlebnis Akademie (EAK),  the “largest operator of outdoor adventure areas in Europe.” Erlebnis Akademie has been in business since 2001, employs “100 professionals” and had turnover in 2017 of CAN$17 million. (In addition to Tree Walks it also runs rope parks, as does our port developer Albert Barbusci, a fact I mention only so that I can file it under “World: Small.”)

ZAK designs, implements and runs the trails in cooperation with “local partners” including “the administrators of national parks and protected landscape areas, towns and villages, tourist resorts and specialized organisations and associations.”

To date, the firm has built seven Tree Walks, two of them in the Czech Republic: in addition to the Lipno nad Vltavou walk, which opened in 2012, ZAK has constructed one in the the Krkonoše National Park near the spa town of Jánské Lázně.

The Krkonoše Tree Top Trail is over 1,500 meters long, its observation tower is 45 meters high and the dry toboggan run is 50 meters long. The site also includes an “impressive underground installation bringing visitors closer to the varied underground life among the roots of the trees.”

According to an article in the Czech press, the Krkonoše trail took five years to build, “from first permits to first visitors” and in its first year of operation attracted 300,000 visitors.

I would also note that both Czech trails are located near ski resorts. The Lipno nad Vltavou trail is near the Lipno Ski Resort (highest elevation: 900 meters) which is just over two hours by car from Prague.

Jánské Lázně is one of five ski areas making up the Černá hora ski resort (highest elevation: 1,260 meters), which is roughly three hours by car from Prague.

And while both are much higher than Cape Smokey (skiable elevation: 305 meters), they suffer by comparison to the nearby Alps. I remember from my time in the Czech Republic that my serious skiing and snowboarding friends would go to a Czech or Slovak resort for a weekend, but for an actual ski vacation, they almost inevitably ended up in Austria or France.

It’s a drawback the Czechs turned into a feature, as illustrated by this 2012 Guardian article about skiing in the CR:

The Czech Republic is probably better known for the thousands of ornamental plastic gnomes it produces each year than for its ski resorts. But nowhere looks after shocking skiers and very poorly dressed tourists better than the Czechs. More often than not “relentlessly incompetent” skiers such as the mayor of London, and myself, are ignored by the mainstream ski destinations. The opposite is the case in the republic, which, as one of its winter activities brochures proudly proclaims, “offers numerous ravishing sceneries” where “you can enjoy the nature while struggling to ski”. It openly vaunts itself as the ideal place for “not very capable skiers”, and is also something of a bargain.

This is one of the things I love about Czechs, they don’t claim even their highest mountains are “world class” ski destinations. Compare that to Cape Breton, where supposedly hard-nosed businessmen slap that label on the 154-meter Ben Eoin ski hill. (Sadly, as you will see later, Balaz has developed a liking for the phrase “world class.” I guess that’s what happens when you leave the CR as a student.)

I have no idea if Balaz intends to cooperate with ZAK on the Cape Breton project or if he just cut out a picture of one of their projects and stuck it on an information panel the same way you or I might pin a picture of a window treatment we like on Pinterest.

I don’t know if such a construction could withstand the weather in the Cape Breton Highlands, I don’t know if it matters what is built there if access remains as difficult in winter as it now is (unless you’re traveling by helicopter), I don’t know anything other than that we’ve sold a New York property developer 162 acres for $370,000 and we’re not permitted to see the contract.


Squamish on hold

Probably unsurprisingly, this is not the first Tree Walk that has been proposed for Canada.

The Sea to Sky Gondola, a tourist attraction in Squamish, British Columbia, announced expansion plans in February that included:

…an elevated tree walk that spirals 34 meters into the sky, which will offer 360-degree views of the surrounding landscape.

The “rendering” of the Squamish proposal — billed as the first of its kind in North America — is very reminiscent of ZAK’s Lipno nad Vltavou Tree Walk.  Said Sea to Sky general manager Kirby Brown:

This structure would be Canada’s newest iconic landmark, and its location, immersed in nature, will solidify Squamish as a must-see Canadian tourism destination.

Brown said they hoped to break ground in the fall of 2019 and open in 2020.

But on August 10, according to the RCMP, someone cut the gondola’s main cable, sending all the cars crashing to earth. No one was injured but the damage was in the millions and the lift is inoperable. The criminal investigation is ongoing and the company’s website now states:

The Sea to Sky Gondola is CLOSED for the foreseeable future due to a major lift incident. We will release updates as more details become available.

That is a terrible development for Sea to Sky Gondola, but I suspect it will not mark the end of Tree Walk proposals elsewhere in Canada.


Waxing poetic

Once I’ve found someone to undertake that study of Communist vs Corporate information control, my next goal will be to encourage some anthropologist or sociologist to study the incredible effect Cape Breton scenery has on successful businessmen.

Remember the way Green Cove turned packaging magnate Tony Trigiani’s head? Remember what he wrote to Cape Breton Highlands National Park Superintendent Helene Robichaud after he’d visited the site with the general manager of his company? Let me jog your memory:

I am honestly not trying to be melodramatic here in anyway [sic] but we both felt that the site/location itself (‘or whatever’) seemed to actually know our reasons for being there and was somehow or in some fashion reaching out to us in a sympathetic, moving and convincing manner of bonding with our thoughts, add freely and strongly to our emotions and very much join and encouraging us in our dreams and hopes of what could be, or better still what should be, built there for the respect and acknowledgement of those lost generations of war, and of course, for the many, many generations yet to come!

I thought it was just Trigiani, but listen to Balaz on the subject of Red Head Peninsula:

Red Head Peninsula… a magical place within the boundaries of the Cape Breton Highlands National Park. After more than a decade of looking all over the US and Canada for that one special site, a property that would mirror my dreams and images, I literally stumbled onto it. What initiated this quest was a desire to find beauty, wilderness, comfort and privacy that would lend itself to year-round escapism in a four-season climate. It was important for me that the property should offer respite from the clamor of the daily world and yet be located in a safe, sophisticated area with world-class golf and cuisine a mere 15 minutes away.

Finally, my search led me here and I venture to assert that there is no better coastal property in this part of the world. I fell in love with it straight away – it met all my practical requirements, but just as importantly, it is unbelievably beautiful. It is also a genuine privilege to carry on the stewardship of four generations of the leading local family who received the property as a grant from Queen Victoria in the 1800s.

I can think of no better way to describe this land than to cite the words of Tom Childs (an artist, traveler, philosopher, businessman and real estate specialist), who introduced me to Red Head:

“Having trodden a good proportion of the 204 (+/-) acres for which Red Head provides its name, I am keenly aware of just how unusual and frankly ‘one-of a- kind’ this property truly is. The extraordinarily majestic 150-feet-high cliffs along the entire eastern and southern sides of this property are each about a kilometer long, with the Atlantic shoreline of about the same distance, and dominate any views of the land from the sea and across Ingonish Bay. Once on the property, the views are empyrean! To the south is Cape Smokey, with its multitude of moods from glowering to stormy to calmly majestic. The beaches below the cliffs, one of which is exclusively part of this property, are sandy and secluded, the rocky headland providing a natural 20-foot barrier to incursions from beyond the property.”

See? Two wealthy men who have made their fortunes doing practical things — one designing wrapping for chicken, one building houses for titans — reduced to florid nonsense by the Cape Breton coastline.

It’s a phenomenon worthy of study, I tell you.

But that’s a job for someone else. Me, I will continue to monitor developments in Cape Smokey.

Featured image: Tree Walk in Lipno nad Vltavou, Czech Republic. (Source: Website)