Port AGM: High-End Shopping on the Great Circle Route

It’s been a while since I played a good old-fashioned game of “Okay, stop” with a written document, but last Saturday’s Cape Breton Post article about the Port of Sydney AGM cries out for a talking to.

I’m going to cut the author, “political reporter” Ian Nathanson, some slack, because he was hired in February and cannot be expected to know all the ins and outs of the Port of Sydney Development Corporation. But that seems like all the more reason for me to offer some context. So, roll tape:


Facing another year without business from visiting cruise lines, the Port of Sydney put on a brave face as its board chair and chief executive delivered the grim realities of its further financial losses.

The COVID-19 pandemic, which forced the federal government to ban cruise lines sailing in Canadian ports, dealt a major blow to the port last year amounting to $2 million in lost revenues, Port chair Jerry Gillis said during Thursday’s annual general meeting.

With that ban now extended to the end of February 2022, and uncertainties whether that date would be realistic, “over the course of two seasons will represent over $4.5 million in lost revenues” for the port, Gillis said.

Jerry Gillis

Jerry Gillis, Port of Sydney board chair.

Okay, stop.

I think it’s worth pointing out how completely the Port of Sydney depends on the cruise business, which accounted for 78% of its revenue pre-COVID. Putting all of its eggs into that one basket looks particularly unwise during a pandemic, but Ross Klein, the Memorial University professor who studies the industry (see his Cruise Junkie site) has long warned that cruise lines are fickle, will happily play one port off against another and will reap the benefits of public spending without contributing anything themselves. (Look at the second berth: the original Master Plan for the development of Sydney harbor called for private investment in it, which must surely have meant cruise line investment, but none was forthcoming.) It has never been wise to bank entirely on the cruise industry.

Also, while we’re talking about the second berth, Usher said the power should be connected to it sometime this week and the Port’s 2021-22 capital plan includes money for running a water line to it (a sneaky additional cost not covered by the original $20 million investment).

I had to go back at this point (for my sins) and watch some of the livestream of the AGM during which Usher revealed only five employees remain at the Port and Gillis (who was so impressed by this, he repeated it twice) said that senior Port staff had taken a voluntary 20% pay cut. In Usher’s case, that means she either took a 20% cut on her full $200,000 salary and is now earning $160,000 or she took a 20% cut to the portion of her salary ($100,000) paid by the Port while continuing to receive the portion paid by ACOA ($100,000) which means she’s now earning a mere $180,000.

Presenting that as a sacrifice in a community with our levels of child and family poverty is incredibly tone deaf.

Okay, continue:



“We were devastated to learn this,” Port CEO Marlene Usher said after the meeting. “But it is what it is, and frankly none of it was surprising to us. Last year, it took us all by surprise. But I think we learned from that and went in a little more prepared to what we were going to face this year.”

Okay, stop.

I think citizens of the CBRM who, like their fellow Nova Scotians, have spent a year washing their hands and keeping their social distance and wearing masks and working behind plexi-glass if not from home would be more “devastated” had the federal government decided to allow cruise ships to return this spring.

Let’s look at what’s been happening on the cruises that have been permitted to set sail, shall we?

As recently as February 17, there was a case of COVID diagnosed on the MSC Grandiosa, which was on a seven-day Mediterranean cruise out of Genoa. That incident followed a February 11 outbreak involving four cases  on the Mein Schiff 2, a German cruise ship which sailed to the Canary Islands.

So, no, this continued ban should not be surprising.

Port of Sydney CEO Marlene Usher

Port of Sydney CEO Marlene Usher



That meant some drastic changes to how the port operates and how it can sustain business.

“We certainly won’t be closing,” Usher said. “There’s far too much at stake.”

Okay, seriously, stop.

Usher has played this card repeatedly (Jerry Gillis did as well during the AGM) and I’ve called her on it before but I feel the need to do so again: tankers delivering heating oil to the historic tank farm in the municipality’s Historic North End represent one of the Port of Sydney’s only sources of non-cruise revenue.

The idea that the CBRM would shutter the government wharf and cut off deliveries of heating oil to a community on the North Atlantic in winter is ludicrous and she knows it but she can’t resist trying to terrorize people.

Enough already.



Instead, Usher said the port has projected this year’s operating budget to be just over $625,000 — a drastic $2-million cut compared to last year’s forecast. The new amount, she said, would be “premised on the continuation of tankers and other vessels as well as real estate revenues from the (Flavor on the Water) restaurant and other entities in and around the port which we plan on opening this summer.”

Okay, stop.

Bruce Meloney

Bruce Meloney (Source: The Kilted Moose)

I recently learned something about the retail space at the Port that honestly amazed me. It was in yet another Post article about COVID and the Port and it stated that:

Bruce Meloney operates The Kilted Moose, Cape Breton T-Shirt Company and Tops and Bottoms at the Port of Sydney and is not yet sure if he will open them or not.

Why is one man operating three outlets at the Port? Is it because no one else wants to be there? Or does it help that Meloney once served as vice president of the Sydney Ports Corporation, the predecessor of the Port of Sydney Development Corporation? (I used to think those guys got a raw deal when they were abruptly replaced by the Port Corp, but I’m beginning to think it may have worked out — at least for some of them.)

You might say, “I’m sure they follow an open and transparent process in renting those spaces,” but that would make me suspect you were from a municipality other than CBRM.

The real kicker to this story, though, is this comment from Meloney about the ongoing cruise ban:

“I hate losing that business. We can survive without it but certainly, it was that gravy, the icing on the cake. We are going to miss that business but we are going to still get by.”

“Gravy?” “Icing?” Is it just me, or does that sound like an admission that cruise ship passengers don’t actually spend much?



The port this year is also facing an expense deficit of $568,000, but after non-cash items, that number surges to $968,000, Usher said.

How can the port make up for the revenue losses? “We do have a plan,” she said during the meeting. “We do have access to a trust fund and cash in our working capital.”

Okay, stop.

I just have to express, once again, my wonder at how access to this trust fund — containing monies left over from the 2012 harbor dredge — was secured: ACOA had to rewrite the 2011 Statement of Work for the project to amend the permitted use of funds. And yet, somehow, back in 2015, the Port decided it could dip into this fund for “business development” without rewriting anything.

Go figure.



Along with other budget adjustments, Usher believes the port can be kept financially afloat until 2023.

The meeting wasn’t all doom and gloom, however. Usher announced a revised strategic plan that aims to add further development of the port which she hopes will cater to residents as much as visitors to Sydney.

A previous attempt at a proposed strategic plan ran afoul in late 2019, with former Port chair Lucia MacIsaac and three other executive members resigning after the Cape Breton Regional Municipality rejected some contents within the plan.

But with new leadership in CBRM Mayor Amanda McDougall as well as changes in the Port’s board of directors, Usher feels the “communication has vastly improved.”

Okay, stop.

Usher must have had excellent initial communication with McDougall’s predecessor, Mayor Cecil Clarke, because he engineered her hiring without benefit of a job competition.



McDougall, along with councillors Eldon MacDonald, Earlene MacMullin and Gordon MacDonald, took in Thursday night’s meeting, with District 5’s Eldon MacDonald voicing the most praise over Usher’s ideas for future port development. Among those ideas included potentially turning the port waterfront into a beach front area, with a Ferris wheel nearby.

You’re killing me. Stop.

Quick history lesson: the reason the Port of Sydney has a highly paid CEO is that the original Articles of Association gave the Port Corporation responsibility for developing the entire harbor, including the “greenfield site,” meaning, the pile of dredged material on the Westmount side that was supposed to become a terminal for the world’s biggest container ships.

Usher, in her role as Port CEO, used to give presentations (I know, because I attended them) in which she talked about The Great Circle Route and the Port’s (bogus) designation as a Foreign Trade Zone, what she learned about the Suez Canel when she was in Cairo and the thousands (thousands) of jobs that would be created by the container terminal project. Here’s a page from a 2016 Port of Sydney “Update to the Community”:

Port of Sydney Update January 2016

This was all during the halcyon days of the “interim” Port board made up of the mayor and a select few councilors. When the permanent Port board was appointed, responsibility for the container terminal was returned to the municipality. Which means we now have a highly paid Port CEO  discussing Ferris Wheels and sand beaches.

Again, I had to go back and listen to the actual presentation and Usher says:

There’s even discussions about a potential swimming area where folks can swim. As we know, the water in the harbor is getting cleaner all the time and…at some point, we may be able to have a small beach on the water.

I know why District 5 Councilor Eldon MacDonald is enthusiastic about this — he basically ran for council one year on a promise to bring a beach volleyball tournament to the waterfront. (I know this because he came to my door campaigning, clearly didn’t recognize me, and brought this up like I was a nice person who would be interested in beach volleyball instead of the kind of hairpin I am.)

The sand beach, of course, comes directly out of Ekistics’ 2014 Sydney Harbourfront Conceptual Vision & Design:

Source: Ekistics Sydney Harbourfront Conceptual Vision & Design 2014

Source: Ekistics Sydney Harbourfront Conceptual Vision & Design 2014

I’m not sure where the Ferris Wheel is supposed to go — I recall a New Year’s Eve when they had one on the site of the former Robin Hood Wharf (it was very popular, even in the dead of winter) but that’s been earmarked for the new library. Could you combine a library with a Ferris Wheel? And a beach volleyball court?

Would you want to?



Gillis, too, is optimistic over Usher’s visions.

“She’s previously worked with ACOA (the Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency), so she has a bunch of experience on that level,” Gillis said after the meeting. “But what we’re really asking is what do we want to do to attract people to the port, not just visitors but residents?

“And everything we’re looking at is doable. It may not get done in the next two or three years, but we’re working on all the plans to make this doable.”

Okay, one last time, stop.

User didn’t “previously” work at ACOA, she is an ACOA employee who has been “seconded” to head the Port of Sydney. ACOA, as noted above, pays half her salary.

But more to the point, working at ACOA means she has experience with Ferris Wheels?

Is Gillis confusing ACOA with the Bill Lynch Shows?

Bill Lynch Show poster circa 1939

Bill Lynch Show poster circa 1939

I’m not averse to the Port being developed to attract locals, but this change in focus from ultra-large container ships to sand beaches is giving me whiplash. I had to go back and watch more of Gillis’ address to the AGM to understand how he views the Port’s mandate. He says:

Over the past year, we have received your approval for our strategic plan and changes to the articles of incorporation. We view this approval as recognition of the Port as an economic driver for CBRM for port-related developments. We are also advocates for many different projects and/or private developments such as, but not limited to, J.A. Douglas McCurdy Airport, the revitalization of the rail, the update of navigational aids and the establishment of a container terminal. While the establishment of the container terminal remains outside our mandate, we remain ready and willing to take on additional responsibilities as directed by you the [CBRM].

When you need us to develop that international trans-shipment hub, just say the word. We’ll be over here by the Ferris Wheel.



The Post article didn’t get into the details of Usher’s plans for making the Port more attractive to residents (and tourists and cruise passengers) but it’s worth looking at them more closely because, as I just said, I think making the Port more attractive to residents is a great idea, although I also think it’s the kind of thing that would benefit from public input — you know, to ask residents what they find attractive. Because some of the elements Usher is describing are not going to be within reach of a lot of us.

The plans include renovating Pittman Hall in the Joan Harriss Cruise Pavilion to create a “high end” market which they’re calling the “Liberty Emporium” after the “Liberty Pier,” which I always forget is the incredibly stupid name we’ve given the second berth. (SO America immediately after 9/11.) Usher’s list of potential tenants includes Port of Wine, a small international grocery store, a deli, a stone pizza, a cigar shop, a flower shop and a specialty coffee shop, i.e. places most CBRM residents will not be able to afford to shop.

There will also be a section called “Craft Nation” featuring products from Nova Scotian craft brewers and distillers. (Usher noted that the idea is not to operate the outlet themselves but to attract tenants, adding that Port General Manager Paul Carrigan is “very well versed on this type of operation having run the Mayflower Mall.”)

Liberty Emporium


Upstairs will be office space where the Port could potentially relocate (leaving the owners of the old Fisheries Building where the Port is currently renting offices high and dry, although I suspect few will shed tears for them.)

The Port is also looking at purchasing playground equipment and the Ferris Wheel is not envisaged as a permanent installation but as something that would be rented for the month of August.

Playground possibilities, Port of Sydney

This is “Fisherman’s Cove” (although I thought we had already named this “DesBarres Cove”), a series of small shops that appear to be built on stilts. They look bigger than the out-housed sized shops that used to be located on the wharf. Perhaps Bruce Meloney will rent one or two or six of them:

Fisherman's Cove plan, Port of Sydney


The people in that last slide are walking on what Usher describes as an “extension” of the boardwalk which she feels will encourage people to continue their walks all the way over to the Pavilion. The Port plans to include the cost of this boardwalk extension with the cost of repairing the sinkhole in that section of the wharf. (Gotta say, completely in favor of fixing the sinkhole.)


Usher has a number of government agencies she intends to hit up for cash, including ACOA (which has to constitute a conflict of interest, given she is still an employee of ACOA, but that’s not the kind of detail that slows people down in CBRM).

As I said, I think turning the Port into more of a public place makes sense. (Would it have made even more sense to hit on this “market” idea when the Farmers’ Market was looking for a home in downtown Sydney? Perhaps. But maybe having markets bookending the downtown is a good idea — especially with a more pedestrian-friendly Charlotte Street in between? As you can see, I’m not sure what I think of the details yet.)

But imagine how “doable” all this development would be if the Port hadn’t spent all that money on studies and brochures and travel and more travel in support of the container terminal they no longer have responsibility for?