MELFORD — UP AN ICY Melford driveway, Sandy Ryan putters about his besieged kingdom of rusted metal and grey sheds.
He and his wife have no neighbours. That’s because they had their land bought or expropriated by the Municipality of the District of Guysborough to make room for a container terminal that was supposed to been started three years ago.
Asked if the project, which proponents say will pump jobs and money into a desperate economy, will proceed, Ryan points across the Strait of Canso to Bear Head.
“That’s where Mulroney and that Schreiber fellow wanted to build the armaments plant,” said Ryan of the planned light-armoured vehicle plant shot down by Jean Chretien’s Liberal government. The plant was proposed by former prime minister Brian Mulroney and disgraced businessman Karlheiz Schrieber in the 1980s.
It’s the same spot where a $700-million liquefied natural gas plant was to be built.
Ryan also points to ponds and rivers behind his property that were dammed as a result of an oil refinery project that didn’t go ahead.
He’s seen so many failed projects over the years that as he nears retirement, it no longer matters to him if the container terminal ever gets built.
“It makes for a good conversation,” he said, smiling. “That’s progress, as they say.”
The $350-million container terminal project is spearheaded by Melford International Terminal Inc. It predicts its wharf will be visited by 95 ships that would unload 760,000 containers each year.
The project’s environmental assessment, approved in 2008, predicts the terminal will create 1,800-person-years of employment during its start up, generate 2,000 spinoff jobs and inject $1.1 billion annually into the Canadian economy.
The environmental assessment also indicated the terminal would start operating this year, but as yet no shovels have been put in the ground, partly because of the worldwide recession.
Despite the lack of headway, Guysborough County officials remain strong supporters of the project.
“Do you know what a huckle-buckle is?” asks Warden Lloyd Hines. “You’d probably call them burdocks. They get all tangled up in your clothes and hair and tag along for the ride. That’s what we are.
“We’ve got no control over world markets or international shipping, but they’re what drive this project, and we’re along for the ride.”
Guysborough County has gone out on a limb for the project. It has bought or expropriated seven Melford homes and spent more than $1 million in legal, surveying, consulting and purchasing costs to acquire about 80 hectares of waterfront property, Hines said.
“Sure we’re taking chances, but you’ve got to understand the situation we’re in,” he said, pointing to Statistic Canada’s 2006 census.
It paints a bleak picture. The county’s population, now about 9,000, has declined steadily since 1991. The community’s average age is 48, the unemployment rate is 15 per cent and the average annual income is $17,666.
“Young people are moving out and the reason is that there’s no good paying jobs,” said Hines. “If we are going to sustain our communities . . . we need to keep our young people. And they need a reason to stay.”
The terminal could help keep those young families in the community, he said.
Richie Mann, Melford International’s vice-president of marketing, still hopes to break ground this year and have the terminal open by early 2014.
“It’s an ongoing process,” he said of the effort to hunt down the $350 million in private investment needed to make the project go forward.
The terminal’s business case is built around attracting container ships from Asia and India that are too big to go through the Panama Canal. They would come thorough the Suez Canal, carrying goods destined for the mid-western states and the Ohio Valley.
Melford would be the closest North American port to them, be free of ice year round and deep enough to handle the ships without dredging, Mann said.
In addition, Mann said the cargo offloaded in Melford could reach its destination before the large ships could dock at other American ports.
Melford International’s business case “isn’t as strong as it was five years ago, Charles Cirtwill, the president of the Atlantic Institute of Market Studies, said in a separate interview.
That’s partly because Sydney is using the same logic to get a terminal built there and Halifax’s port is only working at partial capacity. But Cirtwill would like to see the project move ahead because he’s seen the area miss many opportunities.
Despite having his home expropriated, Basil Scott also wants to see the container terminal built.
“It was the hardest thing I ever done,” he said of having boards nailed over the windows of his grandfather’s house
Asked if he thought it would go ahead, Basil’s eyes brightened.
“Well now, these things take time and it would be good for the young people.”