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The wheel keeps turning

Halifax Magazine looks at 2014’s most important news stories, and what 2015 holds for Halifax

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Illustration by Derrick Chow

Illustration by Derrick Chow

From drunken singers risking it all for a view of Halifax’s building boom, to a debate over dog poop and history, Halifax tripped over itself to be bold in 2014. Revisiting the big stories of the year, you get a sense that 2014 was mainly about setting the stage for 2015.

Africville

Halifax Council realized that having dogs crap in the National Historic Site of Africville could be seen as inappropriate here in the year of 2014.

This summer, Sunday Miller, the executive director of the Africville Heritage Trust, asked the city to require dog owners to leash their pets when visiting Africville Park. Schools kids and other visitors were getting knocked over when they left the church museum and went into the park. Also, the summer reunion again had to dig out of dog poop before people could break out the barbeques.

City staff went further, arguing the city should close the dog park altogether. One dog-walker disagreed, saying “it honours” the site to have dogs in it. Er, right. In June, some 50 years after their predecessors set about razing Africville, today’s council voted to close the dog park. But first, those dogs needed a new park. And so the plans stalled to make sure the dogs got a home for a home. It was another bleak irony, as Halifax infamously promised a “home for a home” to the human residents of Africville during the demolition, only to fail to deliver.

In October, Halifax eyed the Mainland Common in Clayton Park as a possible site for the replacement dog park. Halifax council promised to close the Africville dog park by December. “We’ve waited all these years to get justice for Africville; we can wait a little longer,” a philosophical Brenda Steed-Ross told Metro.

Halifax Transit

2014 was the year Halifax officially became bold, with spiffy new fonts and slogans declaring “bold is all around us.” Bold Halifax, the rebranders told us, was “mature and wise” and, oxymoronically, “youthful and curious.”

This bold spirit of pulling the cart in both directions went on fabulous display in January, when Metro Transit head Eddie Robar announced the bus-and-ferry service would overhaul its entire system and switch to a transfer-heavy method of slick inter-bus transportation. “We had a public that was ready for it, we had a council that was ready for it, and we had a Metro Transit that was ready for it,” a pumped-up Robar told CBC’s Information Morning.

In July, the buses bolded themselves even more as Metro Transit rebranded as Halifax Transit.

And then in September, Halifax Transit unbolded itself. It quietly ditched the transfer-heavy plans and decided to tinker with the existing network. A bewildered Sean Gillis of transit advocacy group It’s More Than Buses told CBC, “We’re definitely disappointed, but also a little bit confused.”

He speaks for many. Halifax Transit will update its plans in early 2015. Perhaps instead of so much bold, they’ll use a little italics.

Tourism

The biggest change to tourism in Nova Scotia this past year was the return of the Yarmouth-to-Maine ferry. The NDP government killed the service in 2009; the Liberal government refloated it this year.

In Halifax, talk quickly turned against the service, with many news stories about the Nova Star service blowing through $26 million in public funds and struggling to get passengers. The service reported numbers rising over the summer, but still cut the season short by three weeks.

South Shore media outlets ran plenty of stories about delighted locals and business owners celebrating its return, and crediting it with boosting the economy. But whether this is the resurrection of a tax-eating vampire that a future government will have to kill again, or a smart investment adding bite to the province’s economy, remains to be seen.

The biggest news in Halifax was Ambassatours Gray Line buying Murphy’s on the Water, merging the two companies to form the largest sightseeing tour company in Canada. A revitalized president Dennis Campbell shared his plans with Halifax Magazine. He and other business leaders want to bring back FRED, the Free Rides Everywhere Downtown bus, running it from the Seaport Farmers’ Market to the casino.

Campbell also plans to bring the Thomas the Tank Engine festival to Halifax, and one day hopes to make Thomas a permanent presence in Halifax, along with Bulgy the Bus.

Ships Start Here (soon?)

It seems like generations have lived and died since then-premier Darrell Dexter and Irving CEO Jim Irving hollered happily as Halifax landed the massive federal shipbuilding contract in 2011. The $25 billion deal to build 21 Canadian combat ships would reverse the westward tide of workers and rebirth the provincial economy.

Since then, years of behind-the-scenes negotiations for the still un-finalized contracts have flattened the celebratory champagne. In October, the Canadian Press reported that Ottawa was cutting back the order from six Arctic offshore patrol vessels to five, but Irving President Kevin McCoy said that was false.

On Barrington Street, workers installed the last beam in the massive Assembly and Ultra Hall Production “shed.” You should drive past this monster to be amazed. Soon, giant ships will gestate inside.

McCoy expects to sign the contract for those six ships in January 2015. “It’s all systems go,” he said at a Halifax Chamber of Commerce lunch in October. More than $330 million has been invested in the shipyard already to get it ready. The design is “95 per cent” done, he said, and they’re figuring out the details.

“We’re talking about steady work out to 2040,” McCoy said. That will level out the boom and bust, making the regular layoffs at the yard a thing of the past. Construction on the first ship will begin in September 2015, McCoy said, and work will go until 2022. The bigger phase of the contract starts in 2020. It’ll create about 2,000 jobs directly, and another 1,000 or so indirectly.

Craning for a better view

A local intoxicated musician and his friend scaled a Nova Centre construction crane in October on an ill-advised dare. He got a sensational view of a sedge of cranes before getting arrested.

Has Halifax ever housed so many cranes? Dozens of yellow giants dot the skyline from Spring Garden Road to Lower Water Street, with many gathered around the deep watering hole dug for the new Halifax Convention Centre.

The inebriated singer wasn’t the only person battling the Nova Centre.

In June, the Heritage Trust of Nova Scotia launched a legal challenge after the final design was approved, and Argyle Developments launched its own lawsuit against the trust. “The Heritage Trust’s persistent efforts to quash downtown development—including Nova Centre—is beyond their expressed mandate, adds costs, and has a negative impact on the progress of our city and province,” Joe Ramia, the CEO of Argyle Developments, said in a news release.

In July, 300 people and companies signed a full-page newspaper ad asking the trust to drop its “obstruction” of the project. Some cheered as Halifax stopped talking and started working, while others booed what they saw as business bullying. The trust dropped its challenge in August.

Either way, work is well underway at the Nova Centre. Some 300 workers are on the site now and more than 600 are expected to be building the centre from next year. The $500-million convention centre, office tower, residential units and hotel is scheduled to open in 2016.

Slimmer council

I sat amid a pitchfork crowd this summer as Halifax Council debated demolishing the Halifax Forum. Staff recommended knocking it down and selling the land, as it would be expensive to modernize it. Locals loved the 90-year-old building and fought to save it. It came to a head with the July vote.

In the past, an angry public gallery would fume as Council rambled along, camouflaging debate with procedural dancing. By the end of a meeting, people didn’t really knew what council had done, but many left feeling certain it had been done to them, unpleasantly.

I expected the same with the Forum. Instead, Mayor Mike Savage sauntered over before the meeting started and introduced himself to everyone. He chatted to see what brought people there, and explained how the debate would unfold. Once Council started, he regularly paused to update people on what was happening. He visited during breaks to answer questions. Other Councillors did the same thing. People seemed satisfied they had been heard.

It felt weird, like a group of elected officials believed they are accountable to the public.

Perhaps saving the Forum was a great thing, or perhaps it will prove an expensive Grimthorpe and we should have listened to staff. (Grimthorpe: To restore or renovate an ancient building with excessive spending rather than with skill.)

The Mayor and council are halfway through their term. The mood in City Hall is far removed from the acrimony of the last council. Business leaders report it being more accessible and flexible. People debate the issues, not the people. The notorious rural-urban divide among councillors faded to a different perspective.

And they’ve barely talked about cats!

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