CBRM considers granting port authority more autonomy to grow economy

Board chair James Kerr says the Port of Sydney Development Corporation needs to be separate from Cape Breton Regional Municipality in order to fulfil the mandate in its name. (Tom Ayers/CBC - image credit)
Board chair James Kerr says the Port of Sydney Development Corporation needs to be separate from Cape Breton Regional Municipality in order to fulfil the mandate in its name. (Tom Ayers/CBC - image credit)

Cape Breton Regional Municipality is looking at ways to give its port operator in Sydney, N.S., more independence.

Port officials say they need to be autonomous, because they haven't been able to access federal and provincial funds for projects and operations due to their close association with the municipality.

The port is also missing out on business growth around the port because of its current governance structure, James Kerr, chair of the port's board of directors, told regional council on Tuesday.

"We are called the Port of Sydney Development Corporation and it's a nice sounding name, however, as it plays out, we're simply a department of CBRM," he said.

Port CEO Marlene Usher said the main dock has needed significant repairs for years and the corporation has the opportunity to grow the business with at least $10 million in new capital spending.

Tom Ayers/CBC
Tom Ayers/CBC

However, CBRM has been unable to afford a major injection of capital into the port and it's time the municipality cut the corporation loose and let it form an independent port authority, she said.

"If you compare the port to all other municipal services, it is very different," Usher said. "It is not a municipal service. It is a business. It is not essential to most taxpayers and it will always fall short on your list of priorities. Not to be critical, but it's just, it's a fact."

The port board sought increased power and jurisdiction over port-related economic development in 2019, but council rejected that, limiting the port corporation to operating the cruise ship terminal and marina in downtown Sydney.

That sparked mass resignations and replacements on the board of directors.

Usher said since then, marine companies operating in Sydney harbour have asked about the provision of services such as fuel, shore-based electrical power and other infrastructure, but the port is unable to do anything about those.

One company owner operating in the harbour has said his boats have to travel to St. John's, N.L., to get fuel and he is considering moving there, she said.

The port has also proposed extending the boardwalk near the cruise terminal and adding retail kiosks to attract pedestrian traffic and new business.

It has also offered other plans to improve the terminal with an eye on economic development, but the corporation has been unable to raise any federal or provincial money without a one-third contribution from the municipality.

Tom Ayers/CBC
Tom Ayers/CBC

And Usher said the not-for-profit port did not qualify for any pandemic relief such as interest-free loans or wage subsidies, because it is considered a municipal entity.

She also said recently, the pilotage authority had a dilemma with 10 to 12 ships arriving in the harbour on the same day and it needed guidance on priorities.

Usher said as the port CEO, her priority would have been to get cruise ships in, but she had no authority to make that decision on behalf of all the marine companies operating in the harbour.

Looking to expand jurisdiction

Usher and Kerr said they are not being critical of the municipality, because they recognize it is cash-strapped and has other priorities.

But they said with autonomy, they could pursue funding on their own and generate more revenue to leverage funding from other levels of government.

They would also like to take over development activities in all CBRM's ports, including Louisbourg, Glace Bay and North Sydney.

Coun. Eldon MacDonald, whose district includes the downtown cruise terminal and marina, said changing the port's governance structure could unlock new opportunities.

Tom Ayers/CBC
Tom Ayers/CBC

He also said increased port activity would be good for downtown Sydney and for CBRM as a whole.

"I see the Joan Harriss Pavilion, the cruise pavilion, and the other opportunities that [were] mentioned here tonight as opportunities for revenue generators and revenue generators — although may be generated from that particular property — they will be spread out across the municipality, benefiting everybody in the municipality."

MacDonald was on council when it voted down an attempt to expand its powers in 2019.

At that time, former mayor Cecil Clarke said there were fears about taking on too much, saying a port authority — and municipality — could become responsible for more than a century of industrial pollution in the harbour.

Port needs new investment: councillor

MacDonald said those concerns still exist, but council has unanimously voted to have municipal staff discuss options with port officials to come up with solutions.

"For me, the port is simply an economic driver of our economy. We need to invest in it," he said.

"It needs to grow and if there's opportunities for us to look at the articles of association and the structure, then I'm more than happy to have that reviewed and make it work in the best interest of the taxpayers and the municipality."

Marie Walsh, CBRM chief administrative officer, told council she expects to report back with some suggestions on a new governance structure for the port within four to six weeks.