Port of Sydney: Couldn’t You Just Have Sent a Press Release?

Ports America (or as I predict it will be known in Cape Breton, based on what I’ve heard, read and said myself, “Ports of America”) is the real deal.

It’s an actual terminal operator running ports all along the eastern seaboard of the United States, across the Gulf of Mexico and up the west coast. That it has agreed to join the Port of Sydney’s merry band of port promoter/marketer/developers is encouraging, as even a port-skeptic like me can see.

Ports America logo

But having Ports America on board puts Sydney on par with Melford, the Strait of Canso container terminal project, in that both have now secured respectable terminal operators — Melford’s is SSA Marine — for what remain imaginary facilities. And I can’t help but contrast the way Melford announced it had landed SSA Marine with what the CBRM and the Port of Sydney did today.

The Melford developers issued a press release.

Our crew hosted a two-hour whoop-di-doodle at the Joan Harriss Cruise Pavilion and made people listen to Albert Barbusci wax poetic about the “pioneers” of port development in the CBRM, and hear the Mayor declare himself vindicated against every criticism that has ever been leveled at him for secrecy and a lack of transparency, and listen to Marlene Usher give her most preposterous presentation yet.

Let’s start with Usher. At some point in the past 18 months, the Port CEO commissioned an economic impact study from a consulting firm called InterVISTAS. God knows how much we paid for it. She couldn’t tell anyone she was doing it because our competitors might find out she was doing an economic impact study and steal the idea.

The report is not actually finished yet, nor has it been made public, but Usher breathlessly shared some of its, for lack of a better word, insights: if we get a mega-container terminal in Sydney, it will generate thousands of construction jobs, and thousands of terminal and logistics park jobs, and thousands of spin-off jobs, and millions in economic development and millions in taxes. Not only that, but it will reverse outmigration, see the establishment of “camps” of construction workers and result in a housing boom in Westmount.

Yes folks, we paid a company to tell us that if we become the first mega-container-ship hub on the east coast of North America, it will have an amazing impact on our economy.

And then Mayor Clarke, who apparently hadn’t listened to Usher’s presentation, took the podium to announce that throughout this process they have been careful about “not setting up expectations.”

 

SHIP to Shore

Albert Barbusci (via Novaporte website)

Albert Barbusci (via Novaporte website)

Albert Barbusci of Harbor Port Development Partners literally phoned his presentation in from Montreal. HPDP is now Sydney Harbour Investment Partners (SHIP, because nothing says, “We’re serious players in the international shipping industry” like a cute acronym). He told us how he and his partner Barry Sheehy knew very little about the industry at first, but took a four-pillar approach to port development which later became a seven-pillar approach (one pillar was a Chinese sister city, another pillar was a tugboat, a third pillar was a state-owned Chinese construction firm) and then, having painstakingly assembled their seven-pillar structure, lucked out and landed the port operator the port consultant who preceded them had been courting.

According to Peter Gillis, president of Local 1259 of the International Longshoremen’s Association (ILA), it was Ed Zimny of Paul of Richardson and Associates who brought Ports America to the table. You remember Zimny, he was the port consultant employed by the CBRM until Mayor Clarke fired him in favor of Sheehy and Barbusci. Gillis told the Spectator (and every other media outlet in town) that he and Transport Minister Geoff MacLellan and Brian Shebib and Jim Wooder of Sydport Terminals Ltd met with Ports America during a trip to New York, Philadelphia and New Jersey in July 2016. Gillis told me:

When we went down, one of the first meetings was held with Paul F. Richardson…with Ports of America and the thing is, that’s when Albert Barbusci and them guys were introduced to this project, when the guys from Sydport Terminals Ltd went to Harbor Port Development and shared the information with them.

Who are Sydport Terminals Ltd, you ask? Why, our secret other port developers, who are not so secret anymore. SLT was incorporated on 15 June 2015 (just as HPDP was getting its exclusive rights to market our port). I’ll let its secretary/treasurer Jim Wooder tell you about it:

Sydport Terminals Limited (STL) is a NS company. The principals are Br[ian] Shebib and Marty Chernin (both former shareholders of Laurentian Energy) and Jim Wooder (former CEO of Laurentian, Chair of the Sydney Marine Group). We have been involved in Sydney’s bid for a container terminal since the beginning, and incorporated STL some time ago to facilitate our ongoing efforts to promote Sydney. STL owns no property and has no interest in any port lands.

Laurentian Energy, you will recall, was the company formed expressly to buy Sydport from Enterprise Cape Breton Corporation (ECBC) back in 1998. The history is too complicated to tackle here, although I took a stab at it last year.

Shebib and Chernin and Wooder are the “pioneers” Barbusci was saluting in his presentation (by the end of it, to my unalloyed delight, they had become his “forefathers”).

So what is STL’s relationship to SHIP? Wooder told the Spectator it was “constructive” and “informal,” adding:

We are delighted with yesterday’s news and believe that Ports of America is an excellent partner for Sydney.

As for what, if anything STL stands to gain from the port deal, Wooder said:

We are open for business with no existing stake.

Personally, I think it’s time for all involved to start discussing some of these matters with our council.

 

Council

Ah, council.

Earlene MacMullin, District 2

CBRM District 2 Councilor Earlene MacMullin

This week has been very exciting for the CBRM’s council. District 2 Councilor Earlene MacMullin said she’s been learning about port development like the rest of us, through the media. She even found out she was going to be asked to extend Sheehy and Barbusci’s exclusive contract for five years (meaning, they’ll still be around after Mayor Clarke is gone) from an article in LocalXpress. (This item, as of 3:30 pm on Wednesday, was not even on the council agenda.)

MacMullin said she’s been trying to get information about the port since she was sworn in with no luck. District 11 Councilor Kendra Coombes told the Spectator she’d been having the same difficulty although “requests have been made.”

MacMullin said she’s been asking (in vain) to see a copy of the signed contract between the CBRM and HPDP. I asked Mayor Clarke about that and he said councilors had the contract, it was available online. But the online contract is a draft and even if it weren’t, if a councilor asks to see an actual document shouldn’t she see the actual document?

Said MacMullin:

We know that we’re trying to market our port. We know about Quad C, we know about HPDP or SHIP or whatever they’re calling themselves now. We know now that there’s an operator that’s interested. Okay, so we know that these pieces are all falling into place, but we don’t, publicly or even council-wise, we don’t know anything about the agreement between Harbor Port Development and CBRM. There are no details and that makes me nervous. And all I want is the details. I’m not saying that they’re not the greatest thing to come along but let me decide that for myself.

If the mayor really wanted to make a case for Ports America, why not invite its chief strategy officer Peter Ford to speak to council instead of playing his interview with CBC’s Wendy Bergfeldt to start the meeting? Why not let Ford answer councilors’ questions? Hell, why not do it in an open session and let the public listen? Wouldn’t that send a much stronger message than hosting yet another dog and pony show at the cruise pavilion?

For me, the bottom line has nothing to do with a container terminal and everything to do with our democracy. When the mayor announces that he must, sadly, sign non-disclosure agreements that mean he can’t tell council what he’s doing, I get antsy. Can a mayor keep information from a municipal council? Information about the development of a public resource? Well, ours is certainly trying to.

Clarke has a one-two punch lined up for Thursday: during the Port AGM in the morning, council will be asked to appoint a councilor to the “interim” port board to replace Kevin Saccary, who was defeated in the October elections. That means the “interim board,” made up currently of the mayor and three councilors (with CAO Michael Merritt as chair) will continue to sit indefinitely, because the Port’s Articles of Association forbid elected officials from sitting on the actual board.

Then, in the afternoon, council will be asked to extend SHIP’s contract for five years.  And council really has to look into whether this is even possible — the contract was with HPDP and HPDP is now SHIP. Clarke told me that SHIP is a “trade name,” but Barbusci didn’t refer to it as a trade name and according to the federal corporation registry, it looks to me like it’s the new corporate name:

ship

I asked a lawyer about transferring the contract from HPDP to SHIP and he said that if the contract stated that it could be assigned with the written approval of the parties, then it could be transferred relatively easily.

But the draft HPDP contract states clearly:

This agreement is not assignable by HPDP, either directly or indirectly.

I think Wednesday’s theatrics were intended to put pressure on any councilor who might actually want to think about whether HPDP’s contract (which actually doesn’t expire until June of next year) should be extended for five years. The message from Clarke was clear — this port project is happening and anyone who slows it down by asking questions or sticking on issues of procedure is just getting in the way. Certainly, MacMullin feels the pressure. She told the Spectator she thinks the mayor wants to “put her back to the wall” on Thursday, forcing her to vote to extend HPDP’s contract or be labeled “anti-port, anti-development.”

Frankly, I hope council turns down both requests. We’ve had an “interim” port board for 18 months now, it’s time for the community board we were promised when the Port of Sydney Development Corporation was first formed.

And what better time than the Christmas holidays for a councilor to pour a glass of eggnog, grab a piece of fruitcake and read the fine print on the port marketers’ contract?

 

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*This story has been corrected — I confused Intervista with InterVISTAS. Apologies for any confusion.