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Port authority looks for autonomy

CEO, board chair eye establishing itself as its own ‘true port authority’


SYDNEY — The Port of Sydney Development Corp. is floating the idea of becoming its own entity as an independently governed “true port authority.”

Chief executive Marlene Usher and board chair James Kerr told Cape Breton Regional Municipality council Tuesday night that the port keeps running into barriers whenever there were attempts to seek further funding opportunities.

“During COVID, we had applied for several programs … but we were denied because we were related to the municipality,” Usher told council. “It’s just the reality that funding agencies through the province and federal government look at municipal units differently … and they make these rules on how to access funds.

“But we as a port don’t access funds in the same way and we feel that would be pretty much better off had we’d been able to go as our own port authority to seek funding from the province and federal government.”

Kerr added that the port seemed to be considered a “low priority” on CBRM’s radar. He referenced the municipality’s decision to cut back on funds allotted to the port in last year’s municipal budget.

“That was a disappointment (to find out) that no money was coming forward,” Kerr told council. “However, I was not upset with the mayor or council at the time. As council, you have to take into consideration CBRM as a whole. The port (at times) will only play a small part.”


In both examples, Kerr and Usher insisted that they were not putting any blame on CBRM for these barriers — just explaining the current realities they’re facing.

In its current setup, the Port of Sydney Development Corp. is a not-for-profit corporation wholly owned by CBRM. The port runs as a municipal entity and CBRM represents its sole shareholder.

Any funding contributions for port ideas often require going before council for approval. As Kerr explained, projects requiring funding assistance have generally followed the one-third costsharing breakdown — onethird from the municipal level, one-third from the province and one-third from federal input.

“But therein lies the issue. Unless we can coincide our needs with what you’re able to provide, the port isn’t going to see funding from the CBRM,” Kerr told council.

Before the cruise ship season resumed last spring, Usher presented an idea of improving the overall look of the Sydney waterfront — which included attracting more niche retail opportunities, setting up an indoor urban market inside the Joan Harriss Cruise Pavilion and plans to add more recreational and family-friendly activities nearby. Though CBRM was receptive to those plans when the port presented these at a November 2021 council presentation, nothing further came to fruition.

“We would like to work with the private sector to establish these types of services,” Usher said.


Usher also explained that other opportunities were being missed.

She cited one business looking for a fuel-up service at the port but opted instead to head to a port in St. John’s, N.L. In another instance, she explained a day that found “10 to 12 vessels” arriving at the port all at the same time and leadership guidance was sought over vessel priority. “My own priority would be cruises, of course,” she said. “Other than that, I have no other authority to decide.”

The new proposed governance model, Usher and Kerr said, would see the port as its own authority, which can pick its own board of directors, a CEO, its own harbour master and represent all harbours within the CBRM jurisdiction — including North Sydney, Glace Bay and Louisbourg.

The model would also include a voice from the CBRM, Kerr said. “We’d be looking to have a member of CBRM council on the port board,” he said.


At this stage, Usher and Kerr said they were not looking to immediately establish its own governance.

“Let’s take the next step and at least have those (ideas) as presented up for discussion, ad hoc,” Kerr said. “For that, we would need council to make that motion.”

While council unanimously supported the idea of discussing the proposed governance idea, concerns were raised about how that would affect the municipality.

“(The port) is one of our largest assets,” District 2 Coun. Earlene MacMullin said. “But we have to weigh the pros and cons and have these conversations. What is being asked for is to take the ability of the municipality to be directly involved or influenced or have any decisionmaking in how it progresses if they change to this new direction.”

District 5 Coun. Eldon MacDonald sees the port as an economic driver. Yet years back when the port authority attempted to seek independence from CBRM, the idea was rejected.


“The port (now) needs to grow, and it’s always good to revisit those things,” he said. “Some new information has come forward where they’ve tried to apply for funding in different programs and opportunities but they feel that they’re running into brick walls, which we didn’t know about.”

MacDonald also wondered whether the municipality should still be involved in some way, given how the pandemic forced the temporary halting of cruises coming into the port — and, in turn, interrupted any revenue the port received.

“Hopefully, we’ll never have something of that nature happen again, but you have to try to plan out for those just in case it does happen,” he said. “Then we’ll be able to react in a more positive manner.

“If we can change that structure to better place them in a position that if something such as that nature happens, then we need to try to prepare and make sure the port has the necessary tools to be able to sustain itself.”





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