Second Berth Info Session: You’re Doing It Wrong

Saturday’s port meeting was more of a rally than an information session, a fact acknowledged by Port CEO Marlene Usher and CBRM Mayor Cecil Clarke, both of whom thanked everyone in attendance for their “support” of the second berth project.

Which is not to say there weren’t some good questions asked of the mayor – one gentleman, concerned about the need to purchase land from local businessman Jerry Nickerson to build the second berth, alleged that the CBRM had once before overpaid Nickerson for property on the Sydney waterfront.

The reference was to the 2011 joint purchase, by the CBRM and Enterprise Cape Breton Corp, of the former Robin Hood Flour wharf for $1.5-million – a price the questioner insisted was far above the property’s assessed value. (I was unable to verify this; however, the mayor didn’t question the assertion.)

What $1.5 million will buy you in Sydney. (Source: ECBC)

The mayor pointed out, reasonably, that the purchase had been made by a previous administration, then dismissed concerns about any over-payment by saying the price paid was worth it, as it allowed the municipality to extend the boardwalk to the government wharf.

It’s not much of a leap to imagine the mayor saying something similar about this upcoming purchase. “Yes, we paid multiples of the assessed value, but look at our second berth!” The problem is not just that citizens will foot the bill for this, it’s that the price of the land — and the fact that it is contaminated — could throw off calculations about the total cost of the project. Listen to what CPCS, the consultants who assessed the second berth plan, said:

We further understand from consultations that the price for the acquisition of the Nickerson property is considerably higher than budgeted in the funding application ($6 million vs. $1.5 million budgeted). This remains unresolved though CBRM could choose to expropriate the land. This land is also contaminated and we are not satisfied that the potential environmental remediation costs have been appropriately accounted for in the estimated costs of the second berth project.

The mayor said expropriation remains a possibility as does building the berth to the south of the government wharf, which would put it where the marina currently is. CPCS’s concern was that factors like the purchase price of the Nickerson land or the extent of the contamination or the need to move to a Plan B for berth location might add to the cost of the project and the CBRM hasn’t allowed for this:

As a general rule, public works projects tend to be over budget and there do not appear to be any provision for contingencies in the cost estimates for the second berth project.

The mayor responded to this by stating baldly that the project will come in on budget.

Why?

Because our projects always come in on budget — look at the harbor dredge! Look at the tar ponds remediation!

Well, yes, but according to the Final Evaluation of the Sydney Tar Ponds and Coke Ovens Remediation Project:

The original budget for the remediation of the Tar Ponds and Coke Ovens sites was $397.7M. This budget, which was cost-shared between the federal and provincial governments, included a contingency of $57M.

That’s a contingency of 14%.

I couldn’t find the actual budget for the harbor dredge, so maybe it too contained “no provision for contingencies,” but I rather doubt it. And anyway, the consultants say that “as a general rule, public works project tend to be over budget,” do we think they’re pulling our legs?

Port of Sydney Nova Scotia, second berth information session/rally. 14 January 2017

Port of Sydney Nova Scotia, second berth information session/rally. 14 January 2017

The problem with Mayor Clarke’s Flying Information Shows is that there’s never any information provided by disinterested third parties and Saturday’s session was no exception. The speakers were the CEO of the port, the manager of the cruise business, the general manager of the port and the head of public works and engineering for the CBRM.

Why not invite someone from CPCS — the consulting firm that expressed the concerns — and let the public weigh their views against those of the project’s proponents? Why not make it a real information session rather than a rally?

There was frequent applause for the speakers on Saturday and only a few people asked questions. As the Cape Breton Post reported:

If Saturday’s public meeting was any indication of what citizens think about the potential of a second cruise ship berth in Sydney, then the project has the support of the community.

This could well be the case, I hear a lot of support for the second berth from people excited for the short-term jobs it will create during the construction period and the millions they believe it will add to the economy as a result of increased cruise business.

But I don’t know how much of a cross-section of the CBRM was at that meeting, and it’s telling to me that the two people the Post chose to interview are friends of Barry Sheehy of Sydney Harbour Investment Partners (also in attendance). Did the reporter just happen to approach Tim Menk and Gene Kersey out of a crowd of “about 250,” or did they approach him? Menk, who has done some work for Sheehy and his partner Albert Barbusci, even took the opportunity to plug the container port project. Getting the green light from the feds for the second berth would, he said:

[S]how the world community, that’s looking at the container port potential, that Cape Breton can get this done and that the province and federal government are willing to come forward with matching funds. This will develop momentum in turn for the support of the container terminal, which is a far larger potential Impact [sic] on going [sic] for the community.

Is he suggesting the federal and provincial governments will come on board to fund the container project? Because the province has been quite clear that it has no intention of funding container ports and besides, I thought ‘Novaporte’ was supposed to be privately funded? Isn’t that why we’re not allowed to know anything about it?

I would have loved to have heard from a second berth skeptic who attended the meeting with an open mind and left convinced this was a good use of twenty-million public dollars, but I think that would be like saying, “I would loved to have spoken to the ghost of a Newfoundland schooner Captain” or “I would like to have interviewed a leprechaun in a sailor’s hat” following the meeting. Those in attendance seemed, for the most part, convinced of the merit of the project.

Let’s hope they’re right.

 

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