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A land rush at the end of the line

If, as some claim, one definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results, we can take some comfort that, with apologies to Paul Simon, Nova Scotia is still crazy after all these years.

This is the province that pays $60,000 a month to an outfit for not running a railway. In case that’s not looney enough, we’re planning for a land rush at the end of the line where the train doesn’t go.

A former Nova Scotia government invested in high-tech toilet seats and its predecessor thought a provincially-owned cruise ship was a great idea. It turned out it wasn’t, nor were the toilet seats which got flushed along with a fistful of your grandma’s tax dollars.

In the long history of government-sponsored economic development in Nova Scotia there’s a heavy water plant that didn’t work, a color TV factory that was ahead of its time – no one would buy color TVs when only black-and-white programs were available, who knew? -  and the granddaddy of them all, a steel mill that seemed to fire its blast furnace with Nova Scotians’ money.

On the plus side, we also have Michelin Tire, the gold standard of industrial attraction, and a goodly number of more recent successes from Nova Scotia Business Inc.

Today (Monday) a bill will reach the legislature’s law amendments committee that gives the Cape Breton Regional Municipality power to sell land below market value and offer tax breaks to attract businesses to Sydney’s port.

To say that Sydport has a checkered history is like saying the Leafs have had a dry spell. Sydney’s port has been bought for a lot and sold for a little by a couple of levels of government over a few generations.

Bill 85, the McNeil government’s contribution to the Sydney port saga, bestows powers on CBRM that are unavailable to other Nova Scotia municipalities, who are expected to get a fair price for land they sell on behalf of the taxpayers who own it. Nor can municipalities offer businesses tax breaks because, the thinking was, that would pit one against another in bidding wars for businesses.

But, as the Atlantic Provinces Chamber of Commerce points out, that is precisely what the Nova Scotia government is doing with Bill 85. 

In a letter to Premier Stephen McNeil, the regional chamber hit him with the Ivany Report and said his government was setting up a race to the bottom. That’s tough talk from a usually mild-mannered business organization.

“We remind you of the need to rally behind the principles of the Ivany Report that call for all Nova Scotians to work together to address the economic and social challenges that confront us. It is essential that our municipalities be encouraged to work together to achieve prosperity. In the long run no one will win when municipality is pitted against municipality to provide potential investors with more for less.”

The chamber said once the province opens the door, municipalities that are all trying to attract new business and expand their tax base will, by necessity, petition the government for the power to offer cheap land and low taxes.

The government seems okay with that. 

In debate on the bill, Municipal Affairs Minister Derek Mombourquette said other municipal units have expressed interest in similar economic development tools, and his department is taking that into consideration.

Mombourquette, who represents Sydney-Whitney Pier said Bill 85 builds on the “province's history of working with municipalities to enable development projects that are not currently enabled under the Municipal Government Act.”

The Atlantic Chamber said there is good reason municipalities are not enabled to offer sweetheart land and tax deals, because they will create discord, eliminate fairness and the entire province will suffer.

The business organization told the premier that competitive markets, not artificial incentives, are the best means of attracting investment and sustainable prosperity.

The NDP supported the bill on second reading, but the opposition Tories opposed it. 

Conservative municipal affairs critic Brad Johns said the government is adding municipalities to teachers, doctors and other health workers, on the “shameful list” of division it has created in Nova Scotia.

It was once said that Nova Scotia would give away the farm for a few short-term jobs. When Bill 85 passes, CMRM won’t give away any farms, but it might sell some “greenfield” land real cheap. And its close to the tracks that carry no trains.

Jim Vibert, a journalist and writer for longer than he cares to admit, consulted or worked for five Nova Scotia governments. He now keeps a close and critical eye on provincial and regional powers.

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