Northern New Brunswick doesn’t want to miss the boat on the growing trade between North America and foreign markets and is galvanizing plans to become a unique player in the Atlantic Gateway.

Donald Hammond, executive director of Enterprise Chaleur, points out what the region has to offer: A world-class deep-water port with bulk and liquid handling capacity, an abundant reserve of quality aggregate stone products, the availability of industrial land to develop sectors such as metal components manufacturing, links to highways and rail services and a ready-to-work skilled workforce.

But taking advantage of the region’s riches comes with a big price tag. About $150 million is needed for the port of Belledune, $35 million for rail lines and more than $200 million for road improvements, Hammond says, which could bring total infrastructure costs to nearly half a billion dollars.

Brian Lee Crowley, president of the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies, cautions that infrastructure spending with taxpayers’ money should be subjected to a stiff cost-benefit analysis.

“Infrastructure is a real investment in productive capacity today that should pay dividends in the future,” Crowley says. “But you have to make sure the need is there so you can repay the investments with solid economic development.”

However Hammond says tailor-made investments in the north will result in big payoffs for the province, a view he backs up with a new 125-page report called Northern New Brunswick’s Contribution to the Atlantic Gateway Initiative.

The study serves as a bellwether for the province’s northern economy, identifying infrastructure needs and strengths as well as the region’s economic growth potential. Although the Enterprise Chaleur report has not yet been made public, findings were presented at the recent Atlantica Forum on Transportation.

The report includes a survey of more than 50 export-based businesses in Miramichi, the Acadian Peninsula and Restigouche. More than half the companies surveyed said they had lost a business opportunity in the last two years due to lack of infrastructure. Also, 41 per cent of the companies pointed to transportation as a main hurdle for expansion.

In addition, 75 per cent of businesses identified the improvement of the province’s road networks and other modes of transportation as critical to the sustainable economic development of the region and the continued success of their firms.

The survey also helped Enterprise Chaleur pinpoint the region’s strengths. Many of the businesses cited the experienced labour pool, industrial park network, skilled workforce and natural resources as reasons for operating in northern New Brunswick.

“The report was really a fact-finding mission,” Hammond says.

“We hired consultants to help us think outside the box,” he adds. “The first question they asked us was ‘What is your value-proposition?’ We needed to find out what makes us different and how we could best market ourselves.”

The next step is to take the report’s findings and develop an infrastructure strategy that builds on the potential of northern New Brunswick to ensure the region will play a significant role in the Atlantic Gateway initiative, Hammond says, adding that the province’s department of transportation has already received a copy of the report.

“Our goal is to make sure doing business in northern New Brunswick is cost-effective and can bring jobs to the region,” Hammond says, adding that the population has declined nearly five per cent over the last five years. “The business needs are there, so infrastructure investments will not go to waste.”

The long-term plan is to market the ports of Belledune and Dalhousie as the “hub of the Arctic Northwest Passage,” with road and rail connections to the rest of North America, he said.

André Frenette, president and owner of R.H. Frenette Trucking Ltd. based in Petit-Rocher, says the forum on transportation and the report by Enterprise Chaleur are positive steps, but he hopes concrete improvements will be seen soon.

“We do a lot of shipping between southern and northern New Brunswick and the roads need to be improved not only for our transportation efficiency but for everyone’s safety,” Frenette says. “It’s great that we’re looking at developing an international trade corridor, but we should emphasize improvements within the province first.”

While Frenette says infrastructure improvements will attract other companies to the region and spur economic development, he adds that all the Maritime provinces stand to gain from improvements made in northern New Brunswick.

“Infrastructure improvements to the roads, railways or even the port will strengthen our coalition with the other Atlantic provinces,” he says. “They’re our partners in this and we’ve got to work together.”