HALIFAX – The port of Saint John and the Greater Moncton airport seem poised to be New Brunswick’s main contributions to an economic development plan that could pump thousands of job and billions of dollars into Atlantic Canada.
On Friday a report commissioned by the federal government stressed great potential in a so-called Atlantic Gateway initiative. The idea is to build the region as an entry and exit point for international commerce.
Stronger marketing and improvements to local infrastructure, it says, will increase the amount of goods that enter local sea and airports and then travel by rail and road to North American markets. Specifically, the report cites immense potential in growing container traffic from emerging economies in Asia. The key is to make the Atlantic provinces the key eastern access point for trade coming through the Suez Canal.
“The study clearly demonstrates that an Atlantic gateway would help strengthen the region’s economy and Canada’s position in international trade,” said Peter MacKay, the federal minister responsible the Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency.
“The race is on to capture a growing share of the container trade coming from China, India and the Americas. We need to be better at marketing our assets and we need to be more efficient to win the race,” he told a luncheon crowd gathered in a packed downtown Halifax ballroom.
“Success means greater prosperity for Atlantic Canada through a more robust presence and increased participation in international commerce.”
According to the study, the economic boost of the gateway could, by 2025, produce 61,100 new jobs, $2.1 billion in wages and $3.4 billion in GDP growth. Yet most indicators, from the focus of MacKay’s speech to the opinion of local regional development experts, points to Nova Scotia, and specifically Halifax, as having the most to gain in direct benefits.
“New Brunswick is very much a secondary (area). That’s the message that has to get out here,” said Charles Cirtwill, acting president of the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies, a Halifax-based think tank, following the announcement.
“This isn’t a question of does the main gateway go to the port of Saint John, because it simply will never happen,” Cirtwill said of Halifax’s all-but-declared status as the main peg. New Brunswick, he predicted, will be the beneficiary mainly of indirect spin-offs, particularly as goods make their way over land – to and from the Nova Scotia capital.
The role of Saint John, the province’s largest seaport, is still to be defined. But the report lists it as key to container traffic and boosting the number of cruise ships that visit the area.
Capt. Al Soppitt, the port’s president and CEO, hopes Saint John and Halifax can forge a strong partnership as the gateway is developed.
“Together we can form a powerful alliance. We’re both (working) under capacity,” he said in an interview. “I think there is opportunity for both.
“We’re going to make sure Saint John is a leader in this initiative.”
InterVISTAS Consulting Inc., the main firm behind the 144-page report, is now set to study the idea of a southern New Brunswick gateway, which will plug into the main project, Soppitt said. The report also discusses an expected boost in air travel and air cargo. Listed as the province’s major airport, the Moncton facility looks primed to be a second hub, behind Stanfield International in Halifax.
Rob Robichaud, the airport’s CEO, says he is pleased to see airports mentioned in the plan.
“It makes excellent sense that we would be considered a cargo gateway,” he said of site’s close proximity to road and rail and warehousing facilities.
“Not all communities will be, on day one, benefiting as much as (perhaps) Halifax,” he continued, “but as time progresses more communities will benefit.”
MacKay said specific funding amounts and exactly which communities and facilities should expect a cash windfall is all yet to be decided. In its last budget, the federal government allocated $2.1 billion for so-called for gateway projects – basically efforts to boost trade to and within Canada. A separate pot of $1 billion dollars has already been invested into gateway projects on the west coast.
Premier Shawn Graham could not comment directly on the report late Friday, having yet to receive a complete copy. He hopes some of the gateway money will be used to improve the province’s highways, which will serve as gateway arteries to the U.S.
Graham rarely refers to the Gateway project – in stark contrast to Nova Scotia’s Rodney MacDonald, one of the project’s main boosters. Still, Graham downplayed any slant toward Nova Scotia.
“I feel there is going to be a benefit here to the entire region,” he said.