Atlantic Canada's mayors' concerns common across all regions of Canada

The Mayors’ roundtable discussion at the Atlantic Real Estate Forum in Halifax this week may have been regional geographically speaking, but the issues raised were national in scope.
The mayors of the cities of Halifax, St. John’s, Newfoundland and Dieppe, N.B., spoke about infrastructure, density in the city core, immigration attraction and retention, and civic co-operation – challenges that face most urban municipalities in Canada.
Bob Mussett, senior vice-president and senior managing director of Halifax-based commercial real estate firm CBRE Limited, moderated the discussion before 400 realtors, property developers, lenders, brokers and other professionals from at least six different provinces at the World Trade Convention Centre's one-day conference.
Infrastructure clearly weighed heavily on the mayors’ minds.
“Politicians don’t like to stand over pipes in the ground,” quipped Mike Savage, Halifax’s mayor. “You can’t see them. They like new buildings. That’s why there’s a lot of deferred maintenance.”
But Dennis O’Keefe, mayor of St. John’s, pointed out that a city's infrastructure includes such amenities as stadiums and convention centres in addition to water pipes, electrical cables and roads.
O’Keefe said St. John’s is now paying the price for compromising on the size of the downtown convention centre when it was built for $30 million in 2001. An addition to the centre is going to cost the city $60 million.
“It gets worse the longer you put it off,” O’Keefe said.
Atlantic region cities with century-old infrastructure
However, in these days of tight budgets, it’s not possible to cover the burgeoning costs of aging civic infrastructure. Yvon Lapierre, mayor of Dieppe, noted Moncton's sister city is running a $9-million infrastructure renewal deficit and doesn’t receive sufficient funding from the Canada Economic Action Plan to cover all its costs.
If Dieppe’s infrastructure deficit seems small, that’s because it’s a relatively new city compared to St. John’s and Halifax.
Although a few families lived in the area in the 1800s, Dieppe wasn’t declared a village until 1946, a town until 1952 and a city until 2003. In contrast, Halifax became a city in 1842 and St. John’s became a permanent settlement in 1620, giving it the distinction of being North America’s oldest city.
O’Keefe said St. John’s has a lot of “catch-up” to do when it comes to upgrading infrastructure, pointing out that much of it is a century old. Halifax’s infrastructure needs seem particularly dire: Savage said the city faces a staggering $2.6 billion in infrastructure requirements over the next two decades.

Downtown St. John's, Newfoundland – image from the City's website
Intensification on the municipal agenda
All the mayors agreed it’s important to increase density in the city cores and turn them into desirable places where people want to live, work and shop.
Studies show young people don’t want to spend a significant part of their day commuting by car, O’Keefe said. Rather, they want mixed-use condominium developments aimed at young families and professionals, something St. John’s is working to build.
Savage was particularly passionate about increasing density in downtown Halifax. He called for direct capital investment in the city core and stressed that the centre needs to be made safe and inviting by nurturing its art and culture.
“Cities have to take a large part of the responsibility in encouraging people to live downtown,” Savage said.
Before cities can coax people to live downtown, they must entice them to locate to the cities in the first place with the aid of increased immigration.
Billions in mega-projects underway
Newfoundland & Labrador currently has $54 billion worth of projects underway, encompassing everything from oil and gas to hydro-electric, but O’Keefe said the number of necessary skilled people aren’t yet available provincially.
Savage agreed, noting that Halifax can’t reach its economic goals if the city doesn’t have an influx of immigration to help support them. He opined that when it comes to immigration, Atlantic Canada has lagged behind the rest of the country.
“We weren’t sure if they were wealth-takers or wealth creators. Now we know they’re wealth creators,” he said.
Lapierre noted a support network is needed to attract people in the first place and then ensure that jobs are available to retain them.
The session began with the mayors stressing regional co-operation, but it quickly became clear the city leaders were more concerned with their own jurisdictions.

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