The sun has begun to set on the Eastern Strait Regional Enterprise Network (ESREN).
As of March 31, all participating municipalities will be out of ESREN and, as a result the board plans to initiate wind-down measures to bring the economic development organization to a close.
All units in ESREN gave their one-year notice in March 2018, since the Municipality of the District of Guysborough (MODG) was leaving – a revelation that left some of the member units financially exposed.
Most recently, the Town of Antigonish, Municipality of the County of Antigonish voted to leave the REN – as did St. Mary’s.
As a result of this departures, ESREN staff are working on a wind-down plan.
Member municipalities of ESREN set up a wind-down committee March 31, 2018.
At their regular monthly March 18 meeting, the Antigonish town council voted tog give notice of their intention to leave ESREN.
“March of last year, a number of units gave their one-year notice. The last municipal unit to give their notice was Antigonish,” Antigonish CAO Jeff Lawrence said. “As it got closer to January, council discussed the decision, and at the time they were supportive and wanted to see what the other partners were doing before they made a final decision.”
Subsequently, the Town of Mulgrave and the MODG pulled out, “and more recently, Port Hawkesbury pulled out,” Lawrence said.
After meetings between administrative heads, mayors and wardens took place, discussing the level of support, Lawrence noted the recommendation was for Antigonish to give notice it will withdraw from ESREN prior to March 31, 2019.
Antigonish Mayor Laurie Boucher expressed her gratitude for all the work CEO John Beaton did with the town.
“We certainly appreciate all the work you have done, and not only for the region but for the town alone,” Boucher said. “You worked diligently, over the last few years, for us and you’ve worked with our town staff and people in the community, and chamber of commerce and so on, with the Connector Program.”
At its regular monthly meeting on March 19, the Municipality of the County of Antigonish council voted to leave ESREN.
In January, county council decided to continue its membership, after submitting its one-year notice of intent to withdraw.
Deputy Warden Hughie Stewart said county officials are disappointed with how things turned out.
“We are not happy with what happened with the REN, to be honest with you,” he said. We had no choice – we just had to make a decision.”
Stewart was asked what is next for the county, when it comes to economic development, including establishing something on its own, or a partnership with the Town of Antigonish.
“We will be looking at what’s next, but we haven’t really had a sit-down to really discuss it,” he said.
“We think, as a municipality, that we need stability there, we do need somebody – whatever it will be, we’re not sure.”
Stewart thanked Beaton and ESREN staff, along with the board, for their “service and leadership.”
Beaton had nothing but praise for˙ the collaboration the town had with ESREN, saying, “my experience working with the town has been phenomenally positive, and I really enjoyed some of the things we worked on together.”
In an interview with the Casket shortly after the town’s March 18 council meeting adjourned, Beaton said Antigonish deciding to leave ESREN was “not entirely surprising.”
“Our organization has been a little unstable lately, in terms of its structure,” Beaton said.
Still, Beaton said it was a disappointing development to see Antigonish confirm its intention to leave ESREN, since “we had a great positive working relationship, with lots of outcomes and activities that we worked on together with the Town of Antigonish.”
“That being said, with the Guysborough and Port Hawkesbury situation, it was having an impact on the structure and it was kind of the way we saw things going.”
Shutting down ESREN is not as simple as just shuttering some windows and calling it a day.
Andrew Beckett, board chair for ESREN, noted that he and the board will not have a role to play, since the wind-down process will entail dissolving the board.
The responsibility for winding things down will fall into the hands of a transitional group, appointed by member municipalities, tasked with the sole focus of bringing an end to the REN.
“They’d be appointed by municipalities because they are the funders,” Beckett said. “The province may want to have someone on there too, since they are a funding partner.”
Beckett noted the process may be a delicate one, since “the most important exercise is recognizing we’re dealing with people’s lives. There are employees who have dedicated a lot of time and energy to the organization.”
“The most sensitive part is making sure those employees are dealt with in a respectful and professional manner,” Beckett added.
Beckett noted there will likely be severance packages issued, since “that is one of a lot of standards that will be honoured during the wind-down process.”
As far as timelines go, Beckett isn’t certain how long the wind-down process will take, noting that a potential timeline will be in the purview of the transitional group.
“In terms of going forward and workaround on economic development, its up to the municipalities to decide how they want to proceed in that regard,” he added.
Beckett stressed his respect for each municipality’s decision to withdraw.
“I respect them as funders of the organization and I respect their rights to make those decisions,” Beckett said. “But I am disappointed by those decisions.”
Beckett said economic development is a “multi-year exercise” and not something that happens in a short span of time. He believes ESREN was not given enough time to flourish and truly show its worth.
“I would have expected an evaluation of [ESREN] after five years of operation. To be faced with a notice of withdrawal from the municipal units after two years of operation was unfortunate.”
Beckett noted that a longer commitment may have given the economic benefits of the REN more time to manifest.
“I think it could have had a greater impact on the multi-year side of things,” Beckett said.
With files from Corey Leblanc