IT’S BEEN 50 years since a heavy water plant in Glace Bay was trumpeted as the saviour of Cape Breton’s beleaguered economy.
It’s been 45 years since Clairtone Sound Corp., which employed 1,000 people in Stellarton, making televisions, was touted as a new era of prosperity.
It’s been 40 years since the giant IT’S OIL headline on the front page of this newspaper heralded the discovery of Sable oil and gas as an economic anchor for the province.
While the Nova Scotia economy has had its share of long-lasting successes, it’s also been plagued by disappointments.
The heavy water plant had technological problems and shut down in the 1980s. Clairtone’s ill-timed entry into the colour television market failed and the Pictou County plant shuttered soon after. And although the Sable Offshore Energy Project has been a positive force in the province’s economy, it hasn’t necessarily lived up to the hype.
Fast-forward to 2012 and a number of megaprojects are on the horizon.
Irving Shipbuilding Inc.’s multibillion-dollar, 30-year program to build the navy’s next fleet of combat vessels. A pair of oil industry giants, Shell Canada Ltd. and BP plc, plan to spend more than $2 billion combined exploring Nova Scotia’s offshore. The Maritime Link, a $1.2-billion subsea cable, is expected to bring hydroelectricity from the Lower Churchill River in Labrador to Cape Breton and mainland markets.
But whether these projects are economic game changers or puffed-up promises depends on who you talk to. While some observers cite an impending economic overhaul, others warn of giddy hype.
Premier Darrell Dexter has called these opportunities game changers.
“They will alter the future of this province … and the Atlantic region,” he said in a speech last June, adding that “Nova Scotia is on the verge of an unprecedented era of investment and opportunity.”
His words echoed those of former premier Gerald Regan who was quoted as saying the discovery of oil and gas off the province’s coast “might well be the future prosperity of Nova Scotia.”
“It was touted as transformative and clearly, while natural gas has had a significant impact, the transformative effect was not what the Regan government expected it would be in 1971,” Saint Mary’s University history professor John Reid said in an interview.
Along with the three massive developments planned for Nova Scotia, a number of smaller ventures are also garnering attention.
Calgary-based Projex Technologies Ltd. plans to hire 440 engineers — at an average salary of $90,000 — for its Halifax office over the next five years. Technology giant IBM Canada Ltd. has promised to hire 500 people to staff a new global delivery centre based in Halifax. And Pieridae Energy Canada has pitched a new liquefied natural gas plant for Nova Scotia’s Guysborough County that comes with a $5-billion price tag.
Although the multiple projects slated for the province are promising, Charles Cirtwill recommends a dose of caution to accompany the hubris.
“We’re counting our chickens before they hatch,” said the president of the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies, an independent economic and social policy think-tank based in Halifax.
A real game-changing project, Cirtwill said, would see Nova Scotia altered from a government-led economy to a private sector-led economy. Another game changer would be if Shell or BP found oil off the coast of Nova Scotia at a scale worth bringing ashore, he said.
And while the shipbuilding program will make a significant contribution to the economy, Cirtwill said it’s not a game changer. “There’s no question it’s a huge step forward for Halifax but it’s offset by a number of losses in rural Nova Scotia.”
Elizabeth Beale, president and CEO of the Atlantic Provinces Economic Council, said the real opportunity for Nova Scotia lies not only with the massive projects slated for the region but the potential spinoffs.
“It’s not the jobs in the yard that are important but the technology and opportunities that will flow to the region,” she said, referring to the $25-billion shipbuilding program. “The significance will be the opportunities local companies have to work as subcontractors. That is how we learn and improve and become more productive. We need big investments to push us along.”
A measure of a project’s success as a game changer, Beale said, is whether it improves productivity in the province. “Productivity levels in the province and region have generally been much lower than the national average, and that simply is a reflection of the fact that we haven’t had an industry base here that had high levels of output or wages.”
Yet Beale also warned of the risks of pumping up major projects. Besides making a population cynical if the results don’t pan out, the success of many large-scale projects hinges on factors beyond our control, such as a volatile global economy or commodity prices, she said.
Robert Hogue, senior economist at Royal Bank of Canada, said the timing of the big projects will be critical.
“If those projects go forward as currently planned the dollar amounts are quite impressive. The real key will be the timing of them. If there is enough overlap of a certain project we might see a year or two of robust growth.”
But once the projects reach a certain cruising speed, Hogue said economic growth will likely even out. “Activity will operate at a higher level but the actual growth rate will stabilize.”
Dalhousie University economics professor Lars Osberg said the number of projects scheduled to come online in Nova Scotia is promising. But he said investments in education and training to ensure a highly skilled workforce is essential.
“You can have a game-changing event in any particular game in the season but that doesn’t mean you make the playoffs. What determines if you make the playoffs is whether you’ve got the skills on the bench.”