CBRM Council: Port Wants More Authority

Port of Sydney CEO Marlene Usher and Port board chair James Kerr proposed to CBRM council last night that the Port move from the governance structure on the left (a not-for-profit company with the CBRM as its sole shareholder) to the one on the right:

Port of Sydney Management Structure diagram

When I read this prior to the meeting, I thought they meant Canadian Port Authority (CPA), that is, a:

…federally incorporated, autonomous, non-share corporations that operate at arm’s length from the federal government, who is the sole shareholder.

The possibility of applying for CPA status was considered and dismissed in a Port of Sydney “governance” report produced by the Port of Sydney Governance Working Group back in 2011. Usher would be familiar with this because she was a member of the working group, representing Enterprise Cape Breton Corporation (ECBC), which funded the report to the tune of $1 million.

The report said Sydney was unlikely to meet the criteria to become a CPA, chiefly because it was not “financially self-sustaining,” and I was wondering how Usher would get around that, but as it turned out, she and Kerr weren’t proposing the Port of Sydney become a CPA, they just want it to be operated by a body independent of the CBRM (as it was under the old Sydney Ports Corporation which was dumped in favor of the Port of Sydney Development Corporation on the grounds that it was too independent and had run up a debt to the CBRM for rent on the marine terminal and cruise pavilion that the Port Corporation is still paying off today).


Fuzzy future

Usher and Kerr (whose day job is “team manager” at AA Munro Insurance in Glace Bay but who talks about all things nautical like he’s Admiral Nelson) say the Port needs more autonomy in order to operate “like a business” by which they mean, to apply for government funding without being associated with CBRM.

Things came to a head when the CBRM refused to kick in its share of the cost of turning Pittman Hall in the cruise pavilion into a high-end market, building a series of small shops in Desbarres Cove and repairing a hole in the wharf. Without the municipality’s support, the Port couldn’t get provincial or federal funding. Other projects—like shore power and bilge water treatment—are also on hold for lack of funding.

But just how things would improve were the Port independent of CBRM is fuzzy. Presumably, without the CBRM behind it, the Port would have to come up with its own share of any project funding. That’s what the Charlottetown Harbour Authority, the non profit that oversees the Port of Charlottetown, did in 2018, when the governments of Canada and PEI each contributed $4 million toward a significant expansion of the Charlottetown Marine Terminal. Press reports put the total cost of the project between $12 and $14 million and said the Charlottetown Harbour Authority would be responsible for anything over $8 million. Could the Port of Sydney foot those kind of bills? Would it borrow to foot those kind of bills? What if it defaulted on its loans, would the CBRM let the bank take the cruise pavilion?

I also have to note, in passing, that the Charlottetown Harbour Authority, despite its ability to co-fund infrastructure projects, seems a much more modest organization than the Port of Sydney Development Corporation. The Charlottetown authority bills itself as the “marine gateway to Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island” whereas the Port of Sydney is now claiming to be:

Port of Sydney home page

(I learned from the board minutes that the Port of Sydney has its own drone, which explains the dizzying images on its home page.)

Usher has suggested the Port should look at taking ownership of the harbor bottom so it can earn revenue by charging harbor dues and the minutes from the June 2022 meeting of the board show this idea is alive and well:

But it’s all more complicated than this makes it sound because a) negotiations for ownership of the harbor bottom have been underway since 2014 between Transport Canada and the Province of Nova Scotia without outcome and b) even if the Port owns the harbor bottom, it can’t charge harbor dues unless it’s a CPA.


Trust us?

Usher and Kerr want the newly constituted Port Authority to take responsibility for all ports in the CBRM, including Glace Bay, North Sydney and Louisbourg, so it will come down to whether council trusts them to do that or not.

Marlene Usher and James Kerr

Marlene Usher and James Kerr

Which, basically, will come down to believing that the only thing holding the Port Corporation back is its lack of government funding—not its sometimes questionable business decisions, like spending $100,000 on a helipad, an investment that doesn’t seem to be paying dividends. According to those June 2022 minutes, “Breton Air,” the helicopter charter service that lobbied for the helipad, has been “very busy with tours and has not engaged with the cruise industry for possible excursions.”

Or spending hundreds of thousands of dollars in support of Albert Barbusci’s Novaporte (which, according to those same minutes, is “active” and will be “providing an update at a future meeting”) instead of, say, wharf maintenance.

But the motion before council last night was very preliminary, council was asked only to:

…authorize CBRM management [read: Usher’s sister, CAO Marie Walsh] to engage in discussions with the Port of Sydney regarding the Governance model.

And council did.