And then there were three.
The recent decisions by the Town of Port Hawkesbury, Municipality of the District of Guysborough (MODG) and Town of Mulgrave to move on from the Eastern Strait Regional Enterprise Network (ESREN) has left three municipalities – the Town of Antigonish, the Municipality of the County of Antigonish and the Municipality of the District of St. Mary’s – holding the bag, so to speak.
Antigonish County Warden Owen McCarron said it’s a “disappointing” development and one the three remaining municipalities will need to evaluate.
“For the county, we’re going to sit down with the remaining partners, Municipality of the District of St. Mary’s and Town of Antigonish, and figure out a path forward to create an environment where we are supporting businesses in our community and within the region,” McCarron said.
“Over the next couple of weeks, when we’ve had a chance to sit down formally with the other partners, we’ll, probably, have more of a view of our path forward … where we are at this point.”
Antigonish Mayor Laurie Boucher had a similar refrain.
“The town is currently involved in discussions with the Municipality of the County of Antigonish and the District of St. Mary’s, as well as the Nova Scotia Department of Municipal Affairs, to review the REN structure and come up with a revised action plan to effectively move forward,” Boucher said.
“The town puts tremendous value in building and maintaining positive working partnerships for our residents and business owners that will leverage investment opportunities and add to our strength as a regional hub, focused on long-term growth and sustainability.”
District of St. Mary’s CAO Marvin MacDonald was also noting an assessment approach.
“We’re, sort of, assessing the situation, talking with colleagues in Antigonish County, and the other member municipalities from the REN,” MacDonald said. “We’re a group of bordering municipalities and are looking at where to go from here.”
He added no decisions have been made yet, and will not be “until all our options have been explored.”
McCarron talked about having an inclination the MODG was leaning towards moving on, due to financial concerns, but being a little surprised by Port Hawkesbury’s decision, which includes them applying to join the Cape Breton Regional Enterprise Network (CBREN).
“Certainly from Guysborough; they had talked about the fiscal reality they were experiencing, so we felt that was a possibility,” McCarron said.
“Somewhat surprised by Port Hawkesbury’s decision because, I think, the REN really did provide a lot of support to Port Hawkesbury during its time; so that was probably a bit more of a shock for us.
“Guysborough, they were pretty clear that might be a direction they were heading; however, we want to make sure we’re working with the partners and the province to look at a path forward. We’ll sit down with Municipal Affairs as well and figure out what is a workable solution for the remainder of what we do with the REN.”
MacDonald said while it wasn’t anticipated Port Hawkesbury would be leaving and looking to join the CBREN, it’s not “surprising” to him given the town is close to neighbouring municipalities in Cape Breton which are part of that REN.
“It’s reasonable that they may have been looking at their opportunities or options there, as well,” he said.
In a March 1 release, the Town of Port Hawkesbury noted as of March 31, 2019, they will no longer be part of ESREN.
“This was a very difficult decision, with study and discussion occurring over several meetings during the past two months,” the release noted.
“The town is appreciative of the work that ESREN has accomplished in advancing economic development in the Strait Region over the past four years and the partnership that we have been very fortunate to enjoy with our neighboring municipalities through our membership in ESREN. We hope to continue that relationship through the Strait Area Mayors, Wardens, and Chiefs Organization as well as other regional projects, like the Strait Of Canso Economic Zone, which is progressing very well.”
Port Hawkesbury Mayor Brenda Chisholm-Beaton is quoted in the release.
“The town would like to thank chair Andrew Beckett and the ESREN board, and CEO John Beaton and his staff, for the dedicated professional support provided to the town and Strait Region,” Beaton-Chisholm said.
“The Town of Port Hawkesbury looks forward to the potential of working with the rural municipalities in Cape Breton through membership in the CBREN led by the Cape Breton Partnership. The change will help move a number of existing, planned and potential joint initiatives forward while continuing our relationship with the rest of the Strait Region.”
In an interview with the Casket, MODG Warden Vernon Pitts reiterated their decision being based on economics. Factors noted include the winding down of the Sable gas offshore project, and an approximate $2 million drop in tax revenue over the last two years.
“We have to make that shortfall up somewhere,” Pitts said. “The way it shakes down is that, in times of plenty, we all benefit; every district and resident in their tax assessments, what have you.
“And when times get hard, we have to bite the bullet a bit. We will get through this though.”
As Chisholm-Beaton noted in her words, partnerships like the Strait Area Mayors, Wardens and Chiefs Organization will still see the municipalities working together. McCarron said that is critical.
“From the county’s perspective, working with the former ESREN partners is still a critical piece for all kinds of other issues … that part and that relationship hasn’t changed,” he said. “We’ll continue to work very closely on many things.
“We currently use the Eastern District Planning Commission (EDPC) for our planning and building inspection services, along with the Town of Port Hawkesbury, Inverness, Richmond, Victoria as well (using EDPC). So we have other strong partnerships with those municipalities and we’ll continue to make sure we strengthen those relationships.
“It’s a bump in the road but not the end of the road,” McCarron added.
With files from Sam MacDonald