by Tux Turkel

To get to Portland last week on business, Richard Garson had to fly to Boston and rent a car. It was a roundabout trip that took nearly four hours.

If he comes again next spring, maybe he can hop on a one-hour, direct flight.

Garson is an executive with Halifax International Airport in Nova Scotia. He and a colleague traveled from Halifax to meet with Portland officials in hopes of restarting air service between the two cities with historic ties and commercial interests, but no easy travel connections.

“There’s no reason we’re not doing more business,” Garson said, “except that air bridge is missing.”

Portland and Halifax are like-minded, historic seaports that are growing service centers in their own regions. City leaders in both communities want to do more business with the other. The problem is, they’re separated by 540 miles of highway, some of it two-lane.

The most direct route is across the Gulf of Maine. That’s why building a so-called air bridge to Halifax is emerging as a priority this year for Portland.

Halifax is of growing interest to Portland officials, for a couple of reasons. The much-anticipated arrival last spring of The Cat, the high-speed ferry between Portland and Yarmouth, Nova Scotia, has raised public awareness of southern Maine’s travel links with the Canadian Maritimes. Also, a cross-border business conference last month in New Brunswick got Maine people talking about more regional trade between the Northeast and Atlantic Canada.

These and other events have Portland officials looking for new ways to encourage business and tourism travel, expand marine trade and coordinate cruise ship calls with Atlantic Canada.

Most immediately, airport officials from Halifax and Portland want to interest an airline in starting twice-daily, round-trip service between the two cities by next spring.

On a separate track, the cities are trying to increase container shipping between their two seaports. Surging exports from China and India are presenting new opportunities for East Coast terminals, port officials say.

To explore the possibilities, city officials are organizing a business seminar this October in Portland. They plan to invite Maine companies that want to learn more about starting or growing business contacts in Nova Scotia.

“The crux of this is to develop contacts between Portland and Halifax,” said Jeff Monroe, Portland’s transportation director. “The thing that will make it work is transportation connections.”


Canada is Maine’s dominant international trading partner. The state shipped $900 million in goods last year, chiefly forest products, blueberries and fish. But it remains to be seen whether many southern Maine businesses see trade with Atlantic Canada as a growing business opportunity.

Time has blurred public awareness of the business that flowed across the Gulf of Maine before 1867. After that, Britain’s North American colonies were transformed into provinces of the Dominion of Canada. Tariffs and policies shifted trade from New Brunswick and Nova Scotia to central Canadian markets, and away from those in nearby New England.

Also since then, southern Maine’s financial and cultural interests have gravitated south – toward Boston – and blended into a Northeast regional economy. As a cultural reference point, it’s a safe bet that more Mainers can identify David Ortiz, the Red Sox slugger, than have heard of Canada’s new prime minister, Stephen Harper.

For Portland area businesses, though, Halifax is a natural partner. The capital and commercial engine of Nova Scotia, Halifax is a growing hub of 330,000 people. Located on a peninsula with a restored waterfront and historic buildings, downtown Halifax reminds some visitors of Portland on a larger scale.

Portland’s mayor, Jim Cohen, recently met with the mayor of Halifax to talk about business development. Other officials also are forming relationships and rediscovering commercial connections between the two communities. A ‘GOOD GUT FEELING’

Portland hasn’t had air service to Canada since 2002, when Air Canada cut a route to Montreal. Portland-to-Halifax flights ended many years earlier.

Today, Halifax-bound travelers have only three real choices: Fly through Boston and either drive or take the bus or train. Endure a daylong drive across eastern Maine and New Brunswick. Or in the summer, catch The Cat from Portland or Bar Harbor, but face a three- hour drive from Yarmouth, Nova Scotia.

That’s why officials are pushing for direct air service between Portland and Halifax. Rough projections gathered by airport officials in both cities suggest there’s a profitable market for two, daily round trips aboard 19-passenger turboprop aircraft. In the weeks ahead, Portland and Halifax will be refining their numbers and making pitches to American and Canadian airlines.

“We’ve got a pretty good gut feeling that it’s going to work,” Monroe said. “And Halifax does, too. Based on that, we’re going to pursue that opportunity.”


Monroe’s office also received a visit last week from Michael Cormier, vice president of marketing for the Port of Halifax.

Halifax has one of the deepest natural harbors in the world and serves giant container ships that are too big to transit the Panama Canal. The port is trying to position itself as a major North American gateway for goods moving through the Suez Canal to East Coast markets.

Portland is a small player in these ambitions. The vessel K-Wind is the only container ship that visits Portland these days. It serves as a feeder, making weekly trips to move goods to and from larger ships in Halifax and Boston. But Cormier said it’s possible other ships could call in Portland.

“We think the business through that existing connection has the opportunity to grow,” he said.

Some of these ambitions spring from a broader vision of trade potential in the Northeast and Atlantic Canada.

That’s the ultimate goal of advocates of Atlantica, the name given to a trading region stretching from St. John’s, Newfoundland, to Buffalo, N.Y. Monroe and other business and government leaders attended a conference last month in Saint John, New Brunswick, called “Reaching Atlantica,” which focused on how to increase cross- border tourism, transportation and energy opportunities.

Not everyone in Canada embraces the vision of Atlantica. Some trade unions and protesters outside the conference said it promotes political integration with the United States and corporate domination. Their views seem to be in the minority, however.

Portland’s discussions with Halifax are a good example. They signal a new awareness that Maine and Atlantic Canada aren’t at the end of the line, but at an emerging crossroad, according to Brian Lee Crowley, president of the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies in Halifax.

Crowley, a strong supporter of Atlantica, said the biggest hurdle now is for business and government leaders in Maine to embrace the state’s strategic position and look northeast – not just south – for business opportunities. Restoring air service, he said, is a crucial first step.

“The lack of air service,” he said, “is telling us something about how these natural economic connections have been neglected over the years.”