Cities

EASTERN HOT SPOTS

Halifax, Moncton, St. John’s—people and money are flowing into three newly booming centres

JOHN DEMONT March 10 2003
Cities

EASTERN HOT SPOTS

Halifax, Moncton, St. John’s—people and money are flowing into three newly booming centres

JOHN DEMONT March 10 2003

EASTERN HOT SPOTS

Cities

JOHN DEMONT

Halifax, Moncton, St. John’s—people and money are flowing into three newly booming centres

AT PRECISELY what moment was it clear that old, salt-licked Halifax had become a city on the verge of greatness? It could have been in August 2000, when eight business executives chartered a Learjet in Toronto for $18,000 and flew to Halifax just so they could drop $3,600 at Maple, a restaurant then featuring celebrity TV chef Michael Smith. Perhaps it was the summer of 2001, when a waitress walked over to a table at the back of the Economy Shoe Shop, a trendy downtown watering hole, and discovered she was serving Harrison Ford, Liam Neeson and Kevin Spacey, all in town on big-budget Hollywood movie shoots. Maybe the moment came last summer, when 2,500 oil company executives, their suppliers and business associates, some arriving by helicopter, swarmed Georges Island in Halifax Harbour, swilling beer and puffing cigars amid

the ramparts of a 200-year-old fort. Or perhaps it was earlier this year, when a couple of condos in a South End Halifax development went for more than $1 million each, a figure once unimaginable in the city to which Rudyard Kipling gave the stodgy nickname “warden of the Honour of the North.” If only Kipling were alive today. He could take a stroll along downtown Doyle Street, once home to down-at-the-heel warehouses. Nowadays, visitors drop $680 on a 1990 Château Lafite Rothschild at Port of Wines, $19 on a bottle of De Nigris balsamic vinegar at the Italian Gourmet, or $2 on a handmade chocolate truffle at Sweet Jane’s. Look up and they’ll see a string of high-end condos, one of which last changed hands for $1.2 million. “Sometimes you have to shake your head and remember that this is Halifax,” says Ruth Goldbloom, the city’s doyenne

of fundraising, who moved there from Montreal in 1967 and lives just a couple of blocks from Doyle Street. “It’s got a pulse like it’s never had before.”

Vancouver, Calgary, Toronto and Montreal don’t have to worry just yet. With a population of360,000, Halifax is only Canada’s 13th largest city (“big enough for a symphony, too small for adultery,” as some locals describe it). But it’s never had such zip. It helps, of course, to have the navy, port, federal and provincial governments, universities and colleges to bolster the economy. But now Halifax also has new, forwardlooking industries—oil and gas, film, information technology and bio-science—to match its aspirations. The hard numbers bear out the shift: the Canadian Real Estate Association ranks Halifax—where the average house price was up 27 per cent in October from a year earlier—among the hottest housing markets in the country. The 7.5per-cent unemployment rate, close to the national average, is comfortably below the 9.7 per cent for the entire province. Halifax’s job rate is particularly notable in light of the

16,000 newcomers the city has absorbed since 1996, nearly half of them from outside the province. The influx makes Halifax home to fully 39 per cent of Nova Scotia’s population—and a magnet for job-seekers from downtrodden areas of the province where unemployment soars as high as 25 per cent.

Yet Halifax is hardly the only Atlantic boom town hastening the exodus from stagnating rural areas. Urbanization continues its inexorable march all across Canada, with fully 79 per cent of people now living in larger towns and cities, according to the latest census. What’s speeding up the trend in Atlantic Canada is the relative prosperity of a few dynamic centres compared to the sickly rural economies surrounding them. Consider St. John’s, awash in oil money, which maintained its population even as the overall numbers in Newfoundland slid by seven per cent between 1996 and 2001.

Then there’s Moncton, once a moribund rail town. Now, thanks to thousands of callcentre jobs and a renewed entrepreneurial flair, it’s on the verge of replacing Saint John as New Brunswick’s most vibrant economy. While census data showed the provincial population dipping by one per cent, Moncton and the surrounding centres of Dieppe

and Riverview grew by 9.6 per cent to more than 117,000.

Those success stories, however, are still the exception to the rule. “In places like Halifax and Moncton, things are going very well,” says Donald Savoie, holder of an endowed chair in economic development at the University of Moncton. “But if you look at other parts of Atlantic Canada, there are still some fairly major problems.” All the same, it can be easy to forget about your poor country neighbours when you’re lighting up a $32 Romeo y Julieta at Tom’s Little Havana Café cigar bar in downtown Halifax, or teeing off at one of the new golfcourses within a half-hour drive. Or when you’re wearing a comfy terry cloth robe, padding along the redwood floors of the Spa at the Monastery, a converted Roman Catholic institution in St.John’s, just one of the highend spas popping up in ascendant East Coast cities. There, customers choosing the $190 Body Renaissance treatment are pampered with a seaweed body wrap, hydrotherapy session and 45-minute massage, followed by a fresh fruit smoothie served in the café.

“The biggest complaint we have,” says owner Paul Madden, “is the amount of time people have to wait to get in.”

The new prosperity is spreading beyond the tony downtown areas. In Halifax, most of the city’s growth is happening in suburbs such as Clayton Park West (up 74 per cent since the last census), Bedford (as much as 55 per cent), and Hammonds Plains (48 per cent). In Greater Moncton, Dieppe’s growth has seen the town upgraded to city status. And there’s enough demand for housing in the community of St. Philip’s, just west of St. John’s, that people are ponying up $300,000 to $800,000 for handsome, custom-built homes with a view of the cold ocean waters of Conception Bay and the sun setting behind Bell Island.

New people and money are giving the cities a wide-open, anything-is-possible feel. The arc of Claude Levesque’s career is illustrative. He worked for CN Rail as a machinist before cutbacks by the Crown corporation in the 1980s sent the Moncton area into a tailspin. Laid offin 1987, he went into the real estate business. Now 43, Levesque’s a partner in a new, 50-acre housing development planned for Dieppe that will offer houses for anything from $120,000 to $450,000. “It’s not Calgary,” he says, “but this is the strongest I’ve ever seen the economy here. And unless something drastic happens, I can’t see it changing.”

New-found prosperity presents its own problems. The increased population in Halifax is evident in the longer commute from the suburbs. Growth is also a challenge for the already overcrowded schools in all three cities. A surge of development can wreak havoc on any city, but particularly ones with long, storied histories like Halifax and St. John’s. “These developers have no scruples,” complains Victor Syperek, owner of the Economy Shoe Shop and seven other bars and restaurants in Halifax. “They rip them down, they put them up. And these new buildings are devoid of any architectural merit.” Syperek and others see a risk to Halifax’s distinctive look and charm if the building continues unchecked. But for most people, that’s a long way off. Living on the East Coast means knowing fortune can change at any moment. For now, they’re determined to bask in the sunlight, for however long it lasts. ffl

With David Stonehouse in Moncton and Gavin Will in St. John’s