Same Old Choir, Same Old Song

In the days leading up to the provincial election, all the usual suspects sharpened their pencils, marshaled their tired little troop of “facts” and wrote the editor of the Cape Breton Post in support of Albert Barbusci’s Novaporte project.

Barry Sheehy (Source: YouTube)

Barry Sheehy (Source: YouTube)

Port Fest ’21 was kicked off at the end of July by longtime Barbusci business associate/sometime Gabarus resident/full-time opinionator Barry Sheehy, who wrote an op-ed I have already discussed at length, in which he compared Sydney to Prince Rupert and advised us to export our fresh water.

Sheehy’s influence is evident in all the subsequent pro-Novaporte opinionating, particularly a lengthy op-ed signed by District 5 Councilor Eldon MacDonald, but I’m getting ahead of myself.

 

The time is now

Sheehy’s initial salvo was followed by a letter from Cape Breton Regional Chamber of Commerce CEO Kathleen Yurchesyn, the latest (and possibly youngest) victim of our island’s epidemic of sudden-onset port development expertise. Yurchesyn’s letter began:

It’s time to revitalize Cape Breton’s economy.

Which had me scratching my head — hasn’t our economy been in need of revitalization for some time now? Didn’t we used to have a federal crown corporation dedicated specifically to revitalizing our economy? Did Yurchesyn just reach this item on her to-do list and if so, what preceded it? “Buy milk?”

Subsequent paragraphs did little to dispel my confusion:

When we think of economic development, we generally think of buildings being built, new businesses opening, and job opportunities aplenty. But what drives this growth? The answer, simply put, is population growth and investment in strategic industries with long-term economic potential.

“Simply put?”

So, how do we do more of that?

Kathleen Yurchesyn

Kathleen Yurchesyn

Yes, how do we do more of that? How do we do more population growing and investing in strategic industries with long-term economic potential? Why, we support Novaporte, of course:

When we think of our need for prosperity, sustainability, job creation and population growth, Novaporte is a catalyst for it all. It is privately funded, in partnership with our first nations [sic] communities; it has a green energy and environmentally focused strategy, and it will drive trade including exports. It will also significantly raise our local commercial tax base, generate community wealth, create thousands of new jobs, grow our population, and increase our island’s per capita income.

I was doing some serious eye-rolling at this point and Yurchesyn totally caught me:

To some, the Novaporte project may seem “too good to be true,” or even “hard to believe,” but this project has been nearly 14 years in the making.

And it’s a well-known quirk of the port development world that if you talk about a container terminal for 14 years you basically will it into existence.

Although that may seem like a long time to many, it is actually very much right on schedule in the port development world. The business case is strongly supported by the global demand for expanded port facilities on North America’s east coast.

Got that, you hopeless landlubbers? Yurchesyn spoke to someone in the “port development world” and they said “This project is very much right on schedule,” and that doesn’t sound defensive at all.

Yurchesyn ended with a clarion call to citizens of Cape Breton:

When you go to the polls, provincially on Aug. 17 and federally this fall, I strongly encourage you to think about what political party will prioritize private sector development here in Cape Breton in partnership with the public sector.

Meaning, Yurchesyn espouses economic development theories so outdated they are literally older than she is.

 

Same old song

Marlene Usher (LinkedIn)

Marlene Usher (LinkedIn)

Next up was Port CEO Marlene Usher and she did not disappoint.

She worked the phrase “great circle route” into her very first sentence before settling my hash once and for all with this masterful argument:

Some individuals wonder why Sydney could be developed as a transportation hub and the answer is simple – location, location, location.

Clearly channeling Sheehy, she then pointed to Prince Rupert which “became a hugely successful terminal despite the initial concerns of its southern port neighbour, Vancouver.” Now, she says, “both ports are a force of strength establishing themselves as a premium West Coast gateway.”

(I sometimes wonder if I’d be more susceptible to these arguments were they presented by people who could actually write.)

This focus on cooperation between Halifax and Sydney is new and must reflect the brain trust’s realization that setting Sydney up to compete with an existing, under-utilized port is a non-starter. But it’s the only new note in Usher’s song, which she’s been singing since 2014, and if ever there was a time to drop a fresh new track, this was surely it.

 

Membertou Chief Terry Paul (Source: Membertou website http://www.membertou.ca/)

Membertou Chief Terry Paul (Source: Membertou website)

Chief Terry

Membertou Chief Terry Paul’s contribution to this discussion was equally light on new information although heavy on aquatic references (Membertou “casts a wide net,” opportunities are “washing up on our shores.”)

Paul’s argument boils down to, “Look at how well Membertou is doing. Clearly we know a business opportunity when we see one.”

But Membertou financed its investment in Barbusci’s project through a Toronto-based private debt company, a kind of lender of last resort for risky investments. And that private debt company is now in receivership. And neither of those things inspires confidence.

 

Marching orders

Eldon MacDonald

Eldon MacDonald

Which brings us to the councilor for District 5, Eldon MacDonald, who signed his name to a lengthy opinion piece, each and every line of which screamed, “Barry Sheehy helped me write this.”

MacDonald had some marching orders for the winner of the August 17 elections:

First order of business for the premier should be to set a 90-day action plan. In the early phase of his first 30 days he should request staff to establish introductory high-level meetings with key strategic geographical partners who are at the ready to ensure the provincial vision is realized as an all-encompassing vision…

As we advance into the 60-day phase SHIP/steering committee members should be engaged in a more detailed presentation of the Novaporte/Novazone project to the governing caucus and key administration. The objective should include checking off the boxes of aligning our visions, addressing any questions, and identifying any potential matters that may have been overlooked before advancing the project to the 90-day phase.

During the 90-day phase SHIP/steering committee members attend a cabinet meeting where SHIP completes a full and comprehensive briefing of the Novaporte/Novazone project with the objective of further aligning our strategic visions for Nova Scotia’s prosperity.

So, no one has yet briefed the province about this 14-year-old project that is “very much right on schedule?”

No businessperson would make a decision based on the information provided in all of these opinion pieces combined (let alone based on Gabarus resident John Danch’s helpful explanation as to how high a stack of 2 billion, $1 bills would reach — an explanation contained in a letter to the editor I can’t seem to find online). And yet, the purveyors of this twaddle seem to think it will convince CBRM residents we must spend millions in public money on a rail line to support a project we’re not actually allowed to know anything about.

 

Truth in footnotes

Speaking of twaddle, I have to devote a few lines to that Novaporte brochure delivered to select Cape Breton residences prior to the provincial election. (I didn’t receive one and had to borrow my mother’s, which she seemed untroubled to part with.)

It’s a selection of stock photos accompanied by a selection of stock phrases: “Containers will load directly to rail,” “Our deep-water harbour can accommodate the world’s largest ships,” “Big-box warehousing & cold storage,” “Hydrogen fuel conversion and waste-to-energy plants.”

There’s also a smattering of figures from a 2016 InterVISTAS report entitled, “Port of Sydney: Estimated Economic Impact of Proposed Container Terminal & Logistics Park.”

Figures like “7,950” permanent jobs:

InterVISTAs chartInterVISTAS took a bunch of made-up numbers from the Port of Sydney and used them to generate some other made-up numbers. If you read carefully, though, you’ll find the truth in the report’s footnotes. Take the one that accompanies the claim that, at “full build-out,” the Sydney terminal will be handling 3.2 million containers:

The current container volumes handled at the Port of Halifax is over 400,000 TEUs, while container traffic at the Port of Montréal is approximately 1.4 million TEUs.

In fact, everything you need to know about the validity of these numbers can be found in the report’s very first footnote:

InterVISTAS Consulting was not asked to review or comment on the magnitude of the forecasted container volumes or their timing. This report merely documents the expected economic impacts should the forecast be achieved.

In other words:

InterVISTAS Consulting was not asked to review or comment on the feasibility of elf-produced product being distributed globally in a single night by a lone delivery person in a sled pulled by flight-capable reindeer. This report merely documents the expected happiness quotient of children should the forecast be achieved.

 

Voice of reason

Fortunately, some reasonable people were also inspired to write the editor of the Post on the subject of the port and none, I feel, hit the nail harder on the head than did Bruce F. Evans, formerly of North Sydney, now of Dewey, Arizona:

For 14 years we have heard about Great Circle distance advantages and a plethora of partners. It’s easy to get partners if the initial price of admission is zero and you may get free publicity with your announcement, which I suspect was the motivation for the fledging and untested financial partner, whose name no longer appears on the Novaporte website. But I digress.

To my question: The sea portion of transportation cost is the cheapest per unit shipped; the larger cost is for the land portion. Without a landed cost advantage to major cities (Montreal, Toronto, New York, Chicago, etc.) there can be no economic justification for Novaporte. Would SHIP please provide a comparative land transport cost analysis to North American major markets, of their choosing, demonstrating Novaporte’s advantage over established port facilities elsewhere?

I have been asking this question since 2009. The usual answer being, “have we mentioned we are closer than New York is to the Suez Canal?

I couldn’t have put it better myself.

(As I was finishing this — on Tuesday — I realized that Post columnist David Delaney had tackled precisely the same topic, you can read his take here.)