During a year in which the COVID-19 virus disrupted manufacturing and supply chains around the world, the Port of Halifax kept chugging along.
CEO Captain Allan Gray, newly arrived from Australia last November, oversaw a year which included a crippling CN Rail strike, the loss of a big customer (Northern Pulp accounted for 4% of provincial exports), the complete disappearance of cruise ships, and challenges tied to an influx of containerized cargo (a 50% surge in a 30-day period) during a strike at the Port of Montreal.
During questioning by the Legislature’s Economic Development Committee yesterday, Gray praised the port’s longshoremen — whom he called a “forward-looking labour force” — for helping navigate some rough water.
Overall, cargo volumes at the Port of Halifax, which had been predicted to drop by 20%, are now expected to fall only 10% from 2019, according to Gray. That’s mostly thanks to the diversion of containers during the Montreal labour dispute. The port claims it generates more than $2 billion a year worth of economic activity and is responsible for more than 13,000 direct and indirect jobs.
Gray said expenditures in the $100 million range — by governments, CN Rail, and the private operator of the expanded South End terminal to accommodate the world’s largest container ships — should provide steady growth over the next 10-15 years.
That said, the Port of Halifax is still only working at 50% of its current capacity. In response to a question, Gray said increasing the volume of cargo it handles depends on CN finding a way to boost rail service to “optimize” port operations. That’s a repeated refrain for the past 10 years that requires political action from Ottawa.
Cruise business and Seaport Market
The viability of the port as a destination for a full-time farmers’ market and a stop for cruise ship visitors appears to have suffered a major blow as a result of the coronavirus. “It will be at least two to three years before we see the same number of cruise vessels calling at the port of Halifax as in 2019,” said Gray. “And those ships will bring fewer passengers, probably no more than 60% [than in pre-pandemic times]. It will be a slow return for cruise and it will require regulations from Transport Canada and Public Health to be aligned to permit that to happen.”
The Port of Halifax saw 179 cruise ships visit in 2019. Prior to COVID, more than 200 were booked to come and Gray described their loss as having “a serious impact.” The 2019 annual report for the Port of Halifax estimates cruise travellers spent $200 a day while ashore for about $166 million during the season. (Those figures are hotly disputed.) If and when the ships do come back, it will be a different business, predicted Gray. Passengers won’t be as free to roam the waterfront and their movements will have to be somewhat controlled until there is an effective vaccine.
The Halifax Port Authority is also the landlord of the Seaport Market. COVID appears to have put the final nail in the coffin of efforts to establish a year-round, daily farmers’ market on Marginal Road. Farmers’ markets were closed for public health reasons from mid-March until May. The Seaport Market re-opened during the summer but Gray said a Request For Proposals (RFP) seeking a company to operate the market on a full-time basis has “not been successful.”
Lane Farguson, communications director for the Port Authority, says the number of vendors and customers is currently about one-third of the usual number for this time of year. Compared to cities such as Toronto, Montreal, and Vancouver, Gray noted the location of the market at Seaport “lacks the foot-traffic” to make it viable for vendors on a daily basis. The future of the port will include a farmers’ market, he said, but it will operate differently from the past.
“We’re actively looking at solutions to the farmers’ market,” Gray told the committee. “We know it is successful on the weekends. We think maybe we were beating against a tree trying to make it seven days… let’s focus on how to make it really good on the weekends and promote it as a weekend market and look at what else we can do with the rest of the week.”
There is competition. The Brewery Market in the historic Keith’s building on Lower Water Street now includes a small “store” that is open a limited number of weekdays. Saturday mornings see vibrant farmers’ markets running at the Brewery as well as at Alderney Gate in Dartmouth. A smaller market runs Saturdays at the Halifax Forum.
In 2012, the Halifax Port Authority began operating the Seaport after the City of Halifax Market Co-operative surrendered its lease after defaulting on a $6 million loan to Farm Credit Canada. People who started and invested in the Market through the Co-op lost approximately $1.5 million when the design and build of the waterfront project went substantially over budget. Revenues paid by the vendors couldn’t cover the rent charged by the Port Authority. It’s unclear if or how the debt to Farm Credit Canada was repaid.
Dumping near Africville’s Seaview Park
Halifax-Needham MLA Lisa Roberts raised concerns about the Port’s plan for lands adjacent to Seaview Park, near Fairview Cove. Gray said the port is working with members of the Africville Heritage Trust to ensure nothing will be built on the port property that will impede the view from future tour boats or the Baptist Church that is part of the Africville National Historic site.
Roberts said the neighbouring port lands, which have been used for in-filling or disposing of pyritic slate into the harbour, have been described as “an eyesore.” Gray said the site is currently “under development” and will eventually be landscaped following the construction of a building where Canada Border Service agents can examine ship’s containers for drugs and other contraband.
He said members of the Africville Heritage Trust “are comfortable” with the planned use for the port property, not all of which will be used for industrial purposes. Gray said dialogue is underway with the Heritage Trust and HRM about how the non-industrial lands can best be used and designed to meet those needs.