What led a high-end property developer to purchase land roughly 1,600 kilometres away from his New York home?
A simple desire to be near the ocean, says Joseph Balaz, who is among a group of Czech businessmen now seeking to transform Ski Cape Smokey in Ingonish.
Purchased from the province at a cost of $370,000, the ski hill features about 162 hectares and a lodge that new owner Cape Smokey Holding Ltd. plans to replace.
“Over the years, I was always looking for some kind of dream property,” said Balaz, of what brought him to Cape Breton.
“When I discovered Nova Scotia, it was sort of a little bit magical because it’s not overpopulated whatsoever. If anything, there are not many people living there.”
Born in landlocked Prague where he studied civil engineering, Balaz said he aspired to see the world. In 1982, he escaped his country’s former communist regime while on a skiing trip to Austria.
After emigrating to Germany, he later lived in Montreal and would eventually settle in New York City where his primary residence is located and where he remains active in the construction business.
Fascinated by water, Balaz said he spent two-and-a-half years touring the East Coast, from Florida to Ingonish, looking for a piece of land for private use.
“I just thought ‘Wow this is absolutely amazing,’” he said of his first visit to Ingonish more than a decade ago.
“It’s beautiful. It is serene. People are amazing. I mean really, really nice people throughout.”
RED HEAD CLIFFS
Blown away by the northern Cape Breton scenery, Balaz began following its real estate listings.
An enticing cliffside property on the Red Head Peninsula caught his eye and piqued his interest when its acreage was expanded.
“I called my buddy and I told him, ‘Hey, congratulations, you’re buying the most beautiful piece of land with me on the East Coast,’” said Balaz.
“He said ‘What?’ and then ‘Are you serious?’ I said, ‘Yep, yep, yep — we are going ahead.’”
Balaz, along with business partner and friend, Jiří Kejval — president of the Czech Olympic Committee — began work to develop the luxury property, which was built roughly four years ago.
Designed by Czech architect Petr Kolar, the 7,036-square-foot home features four bedrooms, six bathrooms, a sauna and an outdoor hot tub.
Described as an escape to nature in one of the safest places in the world, Red Head Cliffs sits atop a private and gated 101-hectare site within the Cape Breton Highlands National Park.
Its website lists the multi-million-dollar property as available for rental. Balaz was asked about its previous sale listing.
“We are not eager to sell our home whatsoever but we are entertaining the possibility that some of our associates or some of my NYC clients would buy one of the lots within the Red Head Cliffs and we would build another house or two there," he said.
"The land is quite large."
As part of its marketing, Red Head Cliffs asserts that there is no better coastal property located in this part of the world.
BELEAGUERED SKI HILL
Over time spent developing Red Head Cliffs, Balaz said he started feeling the heartbeat of the Ingonish community and its desire to keep young families at home.
With a deep appreciation of its natural beauty and its people, Balaz said he hoped someone would purchase Ski Cape Smokey, located just outside the national park in Ingonish Beach.
"We've spoken with many, many, local friends and as you're probably very familiar — many young families leave," said Balaz. "They would go to Alberta or other places where they can have year-round jobs. Even if they love it in their hometowns ... for a young family to get a mortgage for their first home they have to have full-time employment. It was kind of compelling to really look at it seriously."
Prior to its sale, Ski Cape Smokey relied on a volunteer group to carry out all aspects of the operation from the grooming to the kitchen, rental shop and operating the pommel lift.
A problem that has been plaguing skiers over recent years was the lack of snowfall and the lack of snow-making equipment. But Balaz and partners felt operating the hill solely as a ski destination was not the answer.
The business group includes Kejval's son, Martin Kejval, an alpine skier who competes internationally for the Czech Republic.
“When you really analyze it properly you discover that if you run it as a ski hill only, there is absolutely no way you can make it financially,” Balaz said.
“There is not even a chance to break even, so we were kind of scratching our heads.”
But things changed when the partners were introduced to an amenity found in Central Europe, Germany and the Czech Republic.
Sky-high constructions known as a "tree walks" are cropping up as tourism destinations for their ability to provide a bird’s-eye view to sight-seeing visitors.
“They’ve started them in similar situations where they have some sort of old ski hills and completely underdeveloped areas on these ski hills,” said Balaz.
PROPOSED TREE WALK
Tree walks can be geared toward a physically active customer base, but the Ingonish installation is planned to be accessible for all including children, seniors and the disabled.
Tower specifications are currently being ironed out, as is the project's business plan.
Part of the design process, said Balaz, is choosing the best location for observation decks and a treetop walkway. The project must also fit aesthetically within its natural environment, he said.
After a close inspection of its infrastructure, the group says it now plans to replace the Ingonish ski lodge. An aging chairlift will also be switched out with an enclosed gondola.
Due to added accessibility costs, Balaz said he and his partners will look to dip into possible government or institutional funding.
Although the Cape Smokey project started with Balaz and Kejval, Balaz said it has since expanded to roughly six core partners. At this point most of the group members are from the Czech Republic or of Czech origin.
Additional project components include a proposed micro brewery, shops, along with food offerings and what Balaz described as limited accommodations.
“It needs to be fun," he said. "It really needs to be fun, as well, because otherwise what’s the point?
"We expect the tree walk to be busy during the regular spring to fall tourist season. During the winter we will operate the ski hill with using modern snow-making equipment."
With an estimated budget of $95 to 100 million, Balaz said the project will create at least 300 full-time jobs from entry level to senior management positions.
Plans are to open the tree walk by 2021, but Balaz admits it might be a lofty goal. The partners say they will be collaborating with a local company called BRETOBA for its planned construction.
“The process of acquiring the hill — just getting this thing done — took much, much longer than we anticipated,” Balaz said.
“Once the snow is gone we will start right away with the initial installation of the support polls. And before the winter we are just now working on some access roads and we’ll start dismantling the existing chair lift.
"We are a bunch of stubborn, ambitious guys and so we would love to sort of do the opening on Canada Day 2021. Hopefully, we can pull it off, but we're dealing with a couple of issues — one of them is the construction season, which is obviously very, very short for what we want to do on top of a hill."
Balaz said downhill skiing will continue this year, as it has in the past, at Cape Smokey.
Talks have also begun with the Department of Transportation to create a separate turn lane that would allow drivers to pull into the hill's parking lot without impacting the flow of traffic along the Cabot Trail.