By David Rodenhiser, The Daily News

Maine doesn’t scare me. Missed opportunity for Nova Scotia does.

So, I don’t see the big problem with efforts to increase trade between Canada’s Ocean Playground and the home state of Stephen King and Paul Bunyan. (OK. To be totally honest, King does spook me, and when I was a kid, that giant lumberjack statue in Bangor freaked me out.)

Today through Saturday, business leaders will gather at the World Trade and Convention Centre to discuss “Atlantica.” Opponents, such as the Alliance Against Atlantica, the Anti-Capitalism Collective and various groups of IPod-wearing anarchists, see Atlantica as a corporate-led conspiracy to hand our natural resources to the U.S. and to strip away protections for workers and the environment.

Proponents contend it’s all about making the natural north-south trading links the Atlantic provinces and New England states have enjoyed for centuries work better in a globally competitive world. Stephen Dempsey, president of the Greater Halifax Partnership, says Atlantica is a big opportunity for Halifax.

“This city is the logical leader in the Atlantica region,” he said yesterday. “We are the big boys.”

NAFTA naturally benefits larger economic centres, such as Toronto, more, Dempsey said. Atlantica aims to find ways to make NAFTA work better for Atlantic Canada and New England.

“We need to figure out how to drive more economic activity here: more jobs, more investment,” said Dempsey, who is also chairman of the Atlantic Provinces Chamber of Commerce.

Key to this is harmonizing government regulations to reduce barriers to business.

“We don’t want to take barriers down where they need to exist for valid reasons,” Dempsey said. “What we need to do is ask the question: Why are they there?'”

Across borders

Some, he argued, were put in place many years ago to protect jobs when unemployment was high. But today, some of those regulations inhibit attracting the right workers. The credentials of various tradespeople, for example, aren’t accepted across provincial and state borders.

So, a plumber certified in Portland or Saint John can’t work in Halifax without getting new papers. But the pipes are pretty much the same. Similarly, there are seven or eight different securities commissions throughout the region, including one in each province. That makes it more expensive for businesses to access capital, decreases liquidity, and puts entrepreneurs here at a disadvantage, Dempsey said.

These are impediments to the sort of small businesses that keep towns alive.

“Many people focus on the large multinational corporations, but it’s really the success of the small businesses that Atlantica is predicated around,” said Jonathan Daniels, chairman of the Eastern Maine Development Corp.

Daniels said people in Maine aren’t worried that Atlantica will mean Canadians taking over, although Emera owns Bangor Hydro, and Irving is expanding its interests throughout the state. He said there’s more of a regional view. The success of the Atlantic Gateway proposal, which aims to increase container traffic through Halifax, would help Maine access world markets.

“Halifax is as much our port as it is for Nova Scotia, or Atlantic Canada as a whole,” Daniels said. “The fact that you have to traverse and go across an international border, for us, that’s OK. It’s a resource that we need in order to be competitive globally.”

Others on board

Other north-south alliances are already underway. On the West Coast, it’s called Cascadia, and includes Oregon, Washington State, British Columbia, Alberta and Alaska.

On the East Coast, Dempsey warned, we need to move forward or be left behind.

“The only choices we get to make are how we want it to make it work for ourselves – whether we choose to be last in, or next in, and under what conditions,” he said. “If we could convince the rest of the world to stop while we figure things out, we’d be fine … It’s not happening. No one’s waiting for us.”

To many of those who’ll be picketing outside the Atlantica conference over the next three days, capitalism is a bad word. It seems to me, most Nova Scotians enjoy a pretty good quality of life, thanks to capitalism. More people from here vacation in Cuba than vice versa.

If Atlantica can help Nova Scotia businesses make money, expand and hire more people, I say bring it on.

Otherwise, we can just hope Ottawa keeps sending cash. Now, that’s a scary thought.

David Rodenhiser is a write with The Daily News in Halifax. His columns appear four times a week. [email protected]