Fast & Curious: Short Takes on Random Things

On the Waterfront (Not)

The Sydney Waterfront District Association has changed its name back to the Sydney Downtown Development Association after experimenting with a rebranding for the past few years. (Cape Breton Post)

I find this really funny because I’m the kind of person who finds rebranding failures funny. I’m not proud of that, I’m just telling it like it is. I’m the kind of person who has a favorite, all-time, rebranding flop:

(What is that thing over the “t” in “accenture?” An orphan single quote? An angle bracket? A directional arrow? A less-than sign? A nose? I have no idea, but it kills me every time.)

That said, if I’m honest, deep down inside I have sympathy for anyone trying to change the name of anything in this town. It’s not easy. And I know that because I’m part of the problem: will I ever start referring to the New Dawn Centre for Social Innovation as the New Dawn Centre for Social Innovation?  No. I can pretty much guarantee you I am going to call those buildings on Nepean Street “Holy Angels” for the rest of my natural life.

But in the case of the public’s refusal to embrace the term “waterfront” to describe an area including “Charlotte, Esplanade, Bentinck and adjoining side streets,” I would argue there’s more going on here than just orneriness: there’s reality. Charlotte and Bentinck Streets are not on the waterfront. In fact, some serious planning failures have ensured that from certain points on Charlotte and Bentinck Streets — think, corner of Prince — you can’t even see the water.

I would also quibble with the notion that the development association was doing some sort of rebranding “experiment” by changing its name. Companies and entities like the association don’t generally change their identities just to see what will happen. I think we have to call this a flat-out rebranding fail and having googled the usual reasons for rebranding fails and become an instant expert on the subject, I would suggest the reason was there was no need to change. “Downtown” is “Downtown.” It’s an identity that’s stuck even though Sydney’s “Downtown” has surely seen better days. (Although it seems to have begun to turn a corner and I suspect the organization formerly known as the Waterfront District Association has had something to do with that, so well done).

Actually, come to think of it, I live in the North End of Sydney and so tend to call that area “Uptown.”

But forget I said that — “Downtown” is fine. Now let’s focus on “development.”


Say What?

I’ve been enjoying the CBC’s “Global Studies” feature on the foreign students at CBU although I am deeply ambivalent about some aspects of this “success” story (like the fact that the university seems to have admitted more students than it can actually accommodate; and that so many students have to work while they’re studying, which is being hailed as a positive for the local economy but which can’t be easy for the students.)

I added another misgiving to my list on Tuesday, listening to Gordon MacInnis, the VP of finance and operations at the university, explaining how they might “ramp up” programs and services to cope with the influx while hedging against any sudden drop in international student numbers:

For example, one of the things we would be doing, if we were looking at an academic program, for example, what we may choose to do is to staff up with certainly a level of full-time staffing but also a level of part-time staffing until we can get a little better feel for just how stable enrollment would be from a particular flow of students from a country or countries because part-time employment is, you know, certainly brings less longevity with it and is easier to unwind than…full-time commitments and investments. But I do want to underscore that…one thing we will not…compromise on is quality in what we’re doing

When people say things like “part-time employment brings less longevity” and “part-time employment is easier to unwind,” I always wonder if they honestly think that sounds better than “part-time employees are easier to fire” or if they think people aren’t going to clue in that if their employment is easy to unwind they probably shouldn’t be considering any major purchases?

What MacInnis is describing, of course, is just business as usual for Canadian universities, which could not survive without their easily unwound sessional instructors.

But there’s something particularly insulting about these sort of weasel words emanating from a representative of an institution of higher learning — the kind of place where students are supposed to learn to be critical thinkers; thinkers who can see right through the phrase “part-time employment brings less longevity” to the highly educated, poorly paid, part-time instructors behind it.


Conflict of Interest

This is a bit of housekeeping left over from my stories on the CBRM Regional Enterprise Network (coming soon to an economically challenged municipality near you).

I have been puzzling over the potential conflicts of interest facing members of the CBRM REN board, who will be overseeing hundreds of thousands of dollars in public spending but who are all private businesspeople, chosen from the board of the Cape Breton Partnership, a service-providing organization.

As I noted earlier, the chair of the CB Partnership board, Alex Paul, actually wrote to the CBRM REN’s Liaison & Oversight Committee“ about “any perceived conflict of interest” in the makeup of the CBRM REN board. I got a copy of the letter and found out that Paul was worried about two entirely different potential conflicts of interest than I was:

Redacted CBP CBRM REN Board Rep Governance Confirmation Let Jan 7 19


To reiterate:

This will serve to confirm that the Cape Breton Partnership’s Board members, as identified above and despite their commitment to their role as a Director of the Partnership, will be deemed free to govern the CBRM REN as they deem appropriate, and independent of their role on the Cape Breton Partnership Board.

But can these directors govern the CBRM REN “independently” of their roles on the CB Partnership Board?

The CBRM REN is basically a customer of the Cape Breton Partnership — it will decide what it wants the Partnership to do and the Partnership will receive funding to do it. Isn’t it a little strange to have the same people on the board of the entity commissioning the work and the board of the entity being paid to do the work?

How can the REN board be expected to fairly evaluate the work done by the Partnership when they are also on the board of the Partnership?

As for the potential conflict between board members and the CBRM, it hadn’t even occurred to me and now I’ll be up all night worrying about it.

I had expected Paul to address potential conflicts of interest between directors’ DAY JOBS and their board roles. According to the Canadian law firm McMillan:

Historically, the common law in Canada generally prohibited directors from doing business with the corporation that it served; to permit otherwise could result in the director’s private interests conflicting with the best interests of the corporation. Modern corporation legislation has modified the common law prohibition provided the director discloses his or her interest and abstains from voting in accordance with the applicable legislation.

The Canada Business Corporations Act (CBCA) actually specifies that:

…directors and officers must disclose in writing any personal interest they can have in a contract with the corporation. Failure to make such a disclosure could result in a court setting aside the contract upon application by the corporation or a shareholder.

Mark Peck, executive director of planning and advisory services for the Department of Municipal Affairs told me this is what he presumes board members will do where their day jobs — as, say, consultants — puts them in a potential conflict of interest with their board job — of, say, hiring consultants.

It seems to me it would be cleaner to simply have different people on the two boards, but the provincial government seems to think this is fine and the municipality seems to think this is fine, so I guess we’ll just have to wait and see how fine it actually is.



A.J. Liebling

One final note: I found a quote from the great American journalist A.J. Liebling that sums up the raison d’etre of the Spectator (and all the other brash, young startup news publications in Atlantic Canada) in a single sentence:

There’s nothing crummier than a one-paper town.

(I found it in this New Yorker article by Jill Lepore about the future of newspapers.)