SYDNEY, NS — The mayor of the Cape Breton Regional Municipality and candidate for the Nova Scotia Progressive Conservative leadership, Cecil Clarke, says the next major stage in the effort to create a container terminal at the port of Sydney will be the establishment of an international working group. In a recent interview, Clarke said that will take place in “the coming weeks and months.”
“A lot of planning, a lot of investment is happening behind the scenes,” Clarke said. “That really is a positive sign and really a culmination of all of the working efforts to date, and it really gets into the detail of what a terminal and associated development would mean.”
The people involved with the working group can’t be identified at this time, the mayor said, but he said those involved with the effort to market the port have made “great strides.” Detailed engineering work is also taking place, he added. “When they do come to town, that triggers that things are moving forward,” Clarke said.
Doubters, facilitators and opportunity
The proposed container development is not without its critics, who doubt that it will ever see the light of day. There is also a parallel private process underway to develop a port at Melford, on the mainland side of the Strait of Canso, which recently issued a request for qualifications for firms to complete the detailed professional engineering work for that project.
Clarke has recently been under fire for his travel associated with the port file, including a recent trip to China that also included several municipal staff members, among them, his assistant. “Nova Scotia is very much seen as important and part of the global shipping industry’s future and, as a result of that, it is looking at what, with that future, what infrastructure is necessary,” Clarke said.
“Even though there’s competition, which is very healthy, in the province, there’s competition because there will be investment made in Nova Scotia. We have set the table, so to speak, to facilitate an opportunity for the port of Sydney.” He called the work being done to develop Sydney and Melford, as well as Halifax, as competition that could result in the whole province benefiting.
The other ports are promoting their own business cases but Clarke said he believes Sydney has its own strengths. Those developments will only occur if the projects are accepted by the private sector, he said. “We’ve been focusing on what our business case requires for the community,” he said. Clarke said he’s been encouraged by the response he has received in his meetings with players in the industry on the port.
Progress so far
China Communications Construction Co. Ltd. has signed on to design and build the proposed container terminal, if it goes ahead. Last year, Ports America terminal came aboard as operator for the proposed port development and would work with the other project partners on its design and marketing and then the running of the port.
The public and members of CBRM council have raised concerns about Clarke’s lack of transparency — in-camera meetings and keeping details away from members of council. The same criticism has been levelled at other players involved with the port file, including Sydney Harbour Investment Partners, which has the exclusive marketing rights for the port. Clarke has said they are working under non-disclosure agreements and have to follow the rules of the business world.
The municipality is directly involved with the effort to develop the port of Sydney because of the decision made by council under former mayor John Morgan to purchase the greenfield site proposed to become Novaporte logistics park, associated with the terminal development. Prior to the CBRM purchasing the land in 2012, former owner aurentian Energy Group spent $1 million to market the 162 hectares of prime harbour real estate as a site for a container terminal, however no developers came forward.
Clarke, who was elected on a platform that included seeking a municipal charter for the CBRM and with it additional powers, said without having powers that are enjoyed by the Crown provincially and federally around cabinet confidentiality, the CBRM is at a disadvantage in comparison with private developers at Melford and a federal agency involved at the port of Halifax. However, there are provisions under the Municipal Government Act requiring members of council to respect the confidentiality of in-camera meetings. “It’s really about the nature of a municipality being involved with a commercial project, competing with two other entities—that have the ability to hold the information they have confidential and have to abide by the rules of industry,” Clarke said, adding he understands the frustration.
When asked whether that could be considered a sign that a municipal government has no rightful place in the business of developing a port, Clarke said the intention has always been to get the project underway and then step away and let the private sector take over. Clarke agreed it is an extraordinary situation to have a municipality directly involved in such a development, but it is important for the CBRM to look after the $6-million investment it made in the greenfield site, which it financed and will have to repay, with carrying costs. The priority of the municipality when the decision to purchase the land was made was to facilitate economic development, he said.
“With the commercial agreement in place, once it’s triggered, it is all privately led,” he said. “We will not play any role once the agreements have been triggered officially by the private sector.” Clarke described the Cape Breton Regional Municipality as being “almost there.” The CBRM’s role would then be supportive, in terms of such items as road infrastructure, utilities, policing, security, and fire services.
Major upgrades are going to be required to the short-line railway from Sydney to the mainland, owned by Genesee and Wyoming, in order to accommodate any Sydney port development. That rail line is not currently in operation because it was losing money. A consultant’s report has been commissioned to outline more precisely how much the needed rail improvements could cost.