by Kelly Toughill in Halifax

Jan Imeson moved here from Toronto nine years ago, eager to dump high mortgage payments and stubborn traffic jams for a mellower way of life.

New statistics show that Imeson was on the leading edge of a wave that has boosted the Nova Scotia economy and drawn immigrants and businesses here from around the world.

Statistics Canada reported last week that Nova Scotia’s unemployment rate dipped to 7.6 per cent in May, its lowest figure in 29 years. The story in the region’s biggest city was even better.

Halifax beat Toronto in the all-important jobs sweepstakes, with a 5.9 per cent unemployment rate, compared to 7.6 per cent in Toronto.

“The unemployment rate is lower in Halifax than in Toronto, Ottawa or London,” boasted Nova Scotia Premier John Hamm.

“I’m very proud of what we’ve achieved. We are gradually turning things around; this is not just a blip.”

Statistics seem to back him up.

Nova Scotia, like other Atlantic provinces, has spent a generation battling the twin evils of unemployment and out- migration as the pillars of its traditional resource economy – forestry and fish – faltered.

But that story has started to change. Nova Scotia’s unemployment rate has been falling steadily for three years. Perhaps more impressive is the fact that jobs are being created in the absence of flashy new industries or government-sponsored mega-projects. There are no huge construction projects going on to artificially inflate employment numbers, as when new Navy ships were being built in Saint John, N.B., or the Hibernia oil platform was being assembled in Newfoundland.

The job surge has also occurred as the oil and gas industry contracted. The energy sector was once touted as the future of the region, but exploration has been disappointing in recent years and several companies have pulled out.

It seems to be small business, call centres and high-tech enterprises that are creating the jobs. Ten years ago, there were just 29,000 small businesses in Nova Scotia. Today, there are more than 54,000.

Hamm credits low costs and a great lifestyle for the jobs boom in Nova Scotia. He points out that his hometown, Pictou, was rated the most cost-effective place to establish a new business in Canada by one consulting firm. In another survey, Halifax was rated the fourth best place on the planet to set up business.

Stephen Lund is president of Nova Scotia Business Inc., a provincial agency created to lure business to the province.

He says lower costs and better lifestyles are not only sparking new business creation but luring established businesses from other places, including Toronto., of New York, is one of the largest Internet registration companies in the world. It has decided to consolidate its international operations in Yarmouth in the southwestern tip of the province. The software company Versata is in the process of moving its engineering operation here from India.

Imeson works for a company that moved from Toronto to Halifax this year. Clark Inc. was a transportation company based in Concord. Now, it is a holding company based in Halifax. Imeson, 48, is the executive vice-president and chief financial officer. She says she would not have returned to Toronto to take the job and was only willing to work for Clark if the company planned to move here.

She says the company decided to move to Halifax so that its executives could concentrate on work, rather than being distracted by the hassles of big-city life.

“I have nothing against Toronto, I grew up there, but it is just so hectic,” she says.

“You want your people to be paying attention to the company and its vision, not high mortgage payments or whether they can get through the traffic to pick their children up at daycare on time.”

Hamm has offered payroll rebates to entice many companies to the region, but few companies have received more than $1 million from provincial coffers.

Another key to the province’s new success, Lund says, is a restructured community college system that has focused on producing workers with the right skills.

Brian Lee Crowley is president of the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies, an East Coast think tank. He agrees that the community college system is key to Nova Scotia’s economic renewal but worries that it may not be able to keep up with the demands of the boom.

“We will hit labour shortages soon,” he predicts.

Crowley has long complained that Atlantic Canada was caught in a vicious cycle in which badly structured government support programs depressed the economy. He believes the region is finally emerging from that, and is headed toward a “virtuous cycle” that will create a “culture of opportunity.”

“We are starting, slowly, to get our act together,” he says. “Often, it is not one thing but 100 small things that make the difference.”

Not all areas of the province have benefited equally from the boom.

Halifax may have an unemployment rate below 6 per cent, but unemployment in Cape Breton is more than twice that. In fact, many areas of rural Nova Scotia still struggle with double-digit unemployment rates. But even in Cape Breton, the trend has been positive recently, with unemployment rates slowly dropping.

The 7.6 per cent provincial unemployment rate “is just a snapshot,” Lund says. “It’s a good number, but there is lots of work to be done.”

Imeson has little doubt that more people – and companies will be following her lead.

“Those of us who live here like it a lot. We are starting, slowly, to get our act together” – Brian Lee Crowley, Atlantic Institute for Market Studies.