by Melissa Dunne

Co-operation and focus are key to the success of the Atlantic Gateway strategy, leading Atlantic economists said Tuesday.

The four Atlantic provinces must ensure provincial interests do not override regional interests, said Charles Cirtwill, acting president of the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies.

And the gateway strategy should focus on projects that will increase national and international trade in this region of Canada, said David Chaundy, a senior economist with the Atlantic Provinces Economic Council.

“Each province is quite clear that (the gateway) has got to benefit them,” said Chaundy.

“And that is my concern that that might hinder a coherent strategy.”

The Atlantic provinces are now set to sign a memorandum of understanding with Ottawa on an Atlantic Gateway strategy by the end of October, and are planning to get actual projects started by Oct. 2009, said Ron McKinley, Prince Edward Island’s transportation minister, in a phone interview last week.

The agreement will set out objectives and acknowledge that a committee of federal and provincial officials are working to assess gateway needs.

Ottawa promised $2.1 billion in gateway funding over seven years in its March budget.

Officials in the Atlantic provinces, and Ontario and Quebec all planned on signing memoranda of understanding with Ottawa on their strategies in July.

The Ontario and Quebec governments sign their memoranda last month, but the initiative was delayed in the Atlantic provinces because of elections in P.E.I. and Newfoundland and Labrador.

The region’s four transportation ministers met last week in Fredericton and are meeting again this week in St. John’s to discuss the gateway and other transportation issues.

“Things have been going excellent,” said McKinley.

While there are no rumblings of “traditional fighting” between the Atlantic provinces yet, Chaundy said the provinces will have to work hard to keep the focus on the collective benefits of the gateway.

The Atlantic provinces, Ontario, and Quebec will have to apply for funding from the $2.1 billion federal funding pot. The Pacific Gateway project has already received $591 million.

While an official application process and national policy are still being worked out, funding will be allocated based on merit, said David Oxner, the gateway initiative’s director.

Each Atlantic province is still in the early stages of deciding what projects and funding they will seek. Possible gateway-funded projects range from marketing initiatives to infrastructure investment.

P.E.I.’s McKinley sees opportunities to improve major in the region highways to allow swifter export of potatoes to Canada and the United States.

Also, the minister would like to increase marketing to cruise ships in a bid to encourage more tourists to stop in Atlantic Canada.

In New Brunswick, gateway funds could be used for more highway improvement projects and for improving electricity infrastructure between the province and Maine, suggested Cirtwill.

N.B.Transportation Minister Denis Landry said Tuesday he could not comment on this province’s gateway plans until they are finalized.

Since the port of Halifax is only running at about 50 per cent of its capacity, the city is already looking into marketing its ports to key overseas markets, such as India, said Oxner.

As well, the federal government is busily planning a trade mission for Atlantic Canada in early 2008 to either India or China, said Oxner.

Other projects could include fixing rail bottlenecks and building container terminals at the port in Halifax.

“The question is, in what sense are some of these (possible projects) a gateway?” said Chaundy.

“There is a danger here of broadening out the concept (to) where we start to lose some of its real focus.”

Since the large fund of federal gateway cash is available until only 2014, Chaundy is concerned the Atlantic provinces will try to apply for projects that really do not have much to do with improving Atlantic Canada’s gateway.

The “real focus” of the gateway should be on attracting more business to the Halifax port by marketing to key markets, such as India, Chaundy and Cirtwill said.

“Marketing is probably the best thing we could do with this money,” said Cirtwill.

“And we certainly do not need $2 billion, or $1 billion, or even another $100 million to do that.”

Cirtwill thinks the federal funding for the gateway initiative is “unnecessary” and simply part of the “2007 election budget” aimed at wooing voters.

Oxner said fears that gateway funding is just an election ploy are unfounded. The federal government has yet to hand out any of the funding, notes Oxner. Each project will be subject to a rigorous application process before funding is given, he said.