Change and the Rural Resident

Re-reading my recap of Episode 10 of Annette Verschuren’s Bet On Me podcast, I realized I’d forgotten a couple of things I’d meant to cover, so I’m going to devote a little more ink to her conversation with Cabot Cape Breton owner Ben Cowan-Dewar.

At one point, the two discuss Donald Trump’s golf course in Aberdeenshire which opened in 2012, the same year as Cabot Links, and Verschuren notes that Trump “had a lot more trouble with the community” than Cowan-Dewar did, a point Cowan-Dewar is not quite ready to concede:

We had our fair share of challenge with the community, right?

…I came with youthful optimism about, you know, unemployment was quite high, as you would remember, in Inverness and I think, you know, fair to say the community was less vibrant than, you know, than it is today and…I came and thought, “Oh my god, we’re going to build these golf course, we’re going to build hotels and we’re going to create hundreds of jobs and people are going to love it.”

And then it was like, “Oh, maybe not. Maybe not everybody.”


Scottish anti-Trump sign

Still from James Trosh’s film, Fighting Trump

Cowan-Dewar chalks up the lack of love to rural dwellers’ fear of change:

Change in a city is constant, you know, and so you live in a city, you can’t really be against change because just change is around you every day. But rural Canada, rural world, has not changed in 50 years.

Right, rural communities were famously encased in amber in 1972 and have remained virtually unchanged ever since. Inverness residents have no computers or internet access. They communicate via party-lines telephones and visit banks rather than ATMs for every little transaction. The local hospital refuses to use any surgical technique or piece of diagnostic equipment invented in the past 50 years and residents avoid shopping malls and supermarkets in favor of the mom and pop groceries found on every street corner. Women in the region are still predominantly homemakers, pot remains illegal, the average family includes eight to 10 children and nobody has ever commuted to work in the oil sands or contracted COVID-19.

Page from 1972 Sears Catalog

All the rage in Inverness these days or a page from the 1972 Sears catalog? You tell me.

What a pile of hooey.

But Cowan-Dewar can’t allow that those who opposed his plans might have had good reasons — like, an objection to golf courses on environmental grounds; or a preference for full-time jobs with benefits over seasonal jobs without; or a fear that locals would lose their beach access; or that his courses with their high-end accommodations and homes might have a distorting effect on the local real estate market; or that a golf course might not be the “highest and best” use for a beautiful tract of publicly owned land.

Much easier to dismiss all criticism as rural dwellers’ general aversion to change rather than some Inverness residents’ aversion to the very particular changes he was proposing.


Housing shortage

I mentioned the housing market which leads nicely into the second bone I wanted to pick with Cowan-Dewar, namely, his take on the housing shortage in Inverness. After estimating that he employs about 700 people at his Cape Breton courses (a number reduced by COVID to about 250) he acknowledges that they don’t all live Inverness, then says:

I mean I think, you know, again, the challenge is, and it’s not, you know, it’s not been, as we’ve said, you know, all…easy.

Okay, I’ve had my fun, I’m going to edit the “you knows” out of the rest of the quote:

But one of the challenges that I really see…having been away for awhile, is the…effect of short-term rental…on the housing stock. So what’s really, to me, acutely interesting [READ: ‘Acutely affecting my bottom line’] is there’s a real housing shortage…That is a real constraint and it’s a real challenge and…I remember there was…a great priest who said… “Any rural community would give their eyeteeth for these problems.”

Verschuren, in her usual style, doesn’t ask Cowan-Dewar how the housing shortage might be addressed or who might address it and instead follows up with a question about when he’d started work on Cabot Cliffs.

But I really wish she’d pressed because I found it very disingenuous of him to say Inverness has a housing shortage because of “short-term” rentals without mentioning that his golf courses — and the high price of accommodations on his golf courses — are the reason why there’s a booming short-term rental market in Inverness.

And while I am alive to the problems with this market, which makes it impossible for many people — including Cowan-Dewar’s employees — to find either seasonal or year-round accommodations, I find the implied criticism of this form of business by a businessman like Cowan-Dewar pretty funny.

Also, who is this priest who thinks a town where residents are unable to find housing is a town to be envied? I’d love to hear his Christmas sermons:

In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. And everyone went to their own town to register. And it had a most salutary effect on the short-term tourist accommodations market.

If I had to guess, I’d say Cowan-Dewar, rather than thinking he should build some staff residences (and pay for them himself) thinks the government should build accommodations for his staff.

I’d also point out that this housing shortage has been in the making since Cabot Links opened in 2012. Here’s Cowan-Dewar’s partner, Mike Keiser, speaking to Cigar Aficionado (!) in 2013:

Regardless of the success of Cabot Links, home prices have gone up there rather dramatically. Those little cottages in town that were rather dilapidated, you could get one for $10,000. Now they are going for as much as $150,000. And I’ve noticed that people are tending their gardens, putting in gardens. That’s very nice. When I first went to Inverness, I described it as butt ugly. But now five years later there is purification, gentrification and a healthy economy.

Okay, I will admit, I included that quote not so much for the light it sheds on Inverness’ housing shortage but because it’s so incredibly obnoxious — and because now you, like me, must wonder what he meant by “purification.”


Featured image: Railway Street, Inverness, Cape Breton, ca. 1920. Reference number: 84-864-14964. Beaton Institute, Cape Breton University.