by David Shipley

The clock is ticking for Atlantica.

As proponents of the trade bloc concept gather in Halifax today to discuss transportation, tourism and energy issues, a major highlight of the two-day conference will be the official unveiling of the Atlantica Council. This group of business and political leaders, along with a dedicated full-time staff, will have the task of building on the nascent links forged over the past year between businesses on both sides of the Atlantic Canada-New England border.

They’ll also have the challenge of telling the world – particularly global shipping lines – about how Atlantica is the gateway to 60 million American and Canadian customers. But this new group will have to move quickly.

“There isn’t a lot of time,” says Stephen Blank, a retired Pace University professor and a North American transportation and energy consultant for Columbia and Arizona State universities.

“People in Atlantica had better think that the deadlines are shorter rather than longer.”

Blank says interest in global transportation and international container shipping is rising and could soon reach a point at which large U.S. private equity firms such as New York’s Cerberus Capital Management LP or The Blackstone Group begin to buy up ports and shipping lines.

“There’s a huge amount of money floating around the world and we may find a bunch of new players,” he says, adding Atlantica proponents need to get organized as soon as possible to deal with new shipping entities. Blank says the region may only have one or two years to get ready for looming shifts in global trade patterns.

The good news for Atlantica is much of the infrastructure needed to make the region a gateway for trade between Europe, Asia and North America is already in place, he says.

“Halifax is really lucky and that makes the whole region lucky, because the port has a lot of excess capacity,” he says. “The railroad lines are already there with excess capacity, the cranes are already in place, you don’t have to do anything.”

The key goal for proponents it to spread the word about Atlantica, he says.

The 2007 Atlantica Conference in Halifax, titled Charting the Course, will bring together 500 business people, community leaders, politicians and academics. The gathering builds on progress made at the first-ever Reaching Atlantica conference held in Saint John last June. Atlantica refers to a trade zone encompassing the Atlantic provinces, the northeastern United States and parts of Ontario and Quebec. The region stretches from St. John’s to Buffalo, N.Y.

It aims to restore the traditional north-south trade relationships between Atlantic Canada and the northerneastern U.S. that were severed after Confederation. Making Atlantic Canada and the northeastern states a nexus for international trade would mean lower costs for businesses in the region to ship their goods to U.S. and global markets, proponents argue.

While both Atlantica and the Atlantic Gateway talk about making the region a destination for container ships from Asia via the Suez Canal, Atlantica is about far more than just moving goods to and from the region. In addition to the transportation of goods Atlantica also addresses issues such as regional electrical integration, reduction of trade barriers and the export of energy products such as oil and gas to a hungry American market. Such moves will bolster the economies of the provinces and states in Atlantica.

However, not everyone is in favour of the Atlantica trade bloc concept. A vocal opposition Atlantica has coalesced since the 2006 conference in Saint John. Opponents of Atlantica see it as an attack on organized labour, social standards and the environment. Many are opposed to the globalization of trade and any attempt at closer economic ties with the United States. A small group of protesters briefly interrupted the 2006 conference and Atlantica opponents are promising to bring thousands to protests in Halifax.

Charles Cirtwill, acting president of the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies, says it will take time for the seven-year-old Atlantica concept to reach its full potential.

“It always takes a bit of time to get this kind of mental gymnastics underway,” he says. “We’re talking about adjusting the way people think about the regions in which they live and to think about the inter-relationships that they have. It takes a lot of work and a lot of effort.”

Cirtwill says the Atlantica concept has gone from just being discussed by a few voices to being embraced by business leaders throughout Atlantic Canada.

“Most of what’s happening around Atlantica, even over the last seven years, has been a conversation in recognizing the reality around it as opposed to trying to shape or guide it at this stage.”

Some progress has already been made on Atlantica, with infrastructure such as the Maritimes & Northeast Pipeline providing gas from offshore projects in Nova Scotia to the U.S. market. The recently approved $350 million Emera Brunswick Pipeline – along with the $750 million Canaport liquefied natural gas terminal in Saint John – is also a link between Atlantic Canada and the New England states.

As well, Irving Oil’s proposed $7-billion Eider Rock oil refinery, if it is constructed, would be the largest single example of infrastructure designed to take advantage of the concept of closer trade ties within Atlantica.

There is also the new international electrical transmission line between Maine and New Brunswick.

Beyond energy projects, construction on the new international border crossing in St. Stephen stands as an example of progress being made on the Atlantica concept’s transportation initiative.

There are also more subtle ties being forged between the provinces and states, including the appointment of American Jonathan Daniels, the president and chief executive officer of Eastern Maine Development Corp. as the next chairman of the Atlantic Provinces Chamber of Commerce.

Daniels says his major focus over the coming year will be on drumming up more American interest in Atlantica.

“In many respects it is a tough sell,” he says, adding, however, that he expects more business and political leaders south of the border will support Atlantica as they learn more about it.

“Once they see it and once they see the success, it’s easy to get them to spread the word.”

To convince Americans about the value of Atlantica, he hopes to bring the next conference to the United States.

“That in itself is going to be a show and it’s going to be much easier for people from this area and the states to get here. With that, I think it’s just a matter of time.”

“I think we’ll see quite a bit of progress over the next year.”