Is Halifax “the new Seattle”? We have some work to do…

nova centreIt’s been 25 years since someone at Melody Maker declared Halifax “the new Seattle.” The reference was to the early 90’s burgeoning alternative music scene and what seemed to be a genuine surge in hip music, culture and attitude in the city.

Halifax is still a pretty cool place to live, all things considered, but it isn’t Seattle. However, there are signs we may be taking steps toward acting a bit more like the home of the Seahawks.

This week, Halifax Regional Council voted to do something to help businesses being pummelled because they are located next to large scale development projects. CFIB has been working for a couple of years to assist the city with the development of plans to mitigate the severe damage being done to businesses suffering in the shadow of construction disruption.

The construction site management technical guidelines approved this week are designed to help folks contending with future projects. The speed of the action taken indicates the mayor and councillors understand the severity of the problem.

A lack of appropriate guidelines, oversight and management capacity on the part of the city has wreaked predictable economic havoc.

What is puzzling is the city’s reluctance to publicly accept responsibility for any of the damage. CFIB acknowledges and supports the new guidelines as a positive step forward. Still, as Economy Shoe Shop owner Victor Syperek noted to the CBC this week, for many of the businesses adjacent the Nova Centre, it’s closing the barn door.

argyle-street-downtown-business-878x494

Recently, some of these businesses have launched legal action to seek redress. In response, the city immediately distanced itself, saying the suit, which is rooted in a statutory claim of “injurious affection,” fell outside the interpretation of the law. Certainly the city is well within its rights to defend itself against a lawsuit, but there seem to be contradictory messages here.

On one hand, the rapid development of a construction management guideline recognizes the city did a lousy job protecting small businesses against a development it approved. On the other, the city claims it legally bears no responsibility for the impact. Hmmm.

So, back to Seattle. In contrast to the Halifax approach, in advance of recent major work along an important avenue populated by many small and micro-business, Seattle set up the 23rd Avenue Stabilization Fund with the intent of providing support to businesses which would inevitably be affected by major road reconstruction.

Businesses were invited to apply under clear criteria for support, ranging from deferrals of taxes, licensing and utility payments, to direct financial assistance. Direct and individualized support was provided by the city to assist business owners in gathering the necessary documentation. Communication from the city was clear, precise and issued well in advance of any activity. Consideration was given to access and promotion of business in the region.

Seattle also did a similar and wider scale project in the early 2000s called the Rainer Valley Development Fund during their light rail transit line construction, so it’s not the first time they’ve thought outside of the box and looked beyond state laws to find ways to compensate small business.

With this in mind, Halifax now has to look at not just construction regulation, but the complete picture; a more empathetic approach with creative solutions to let small business know it’s actually valued in this city.

It may not be Nirvana, but it’s certainly better than what we’ve seen.

This post originally published in the Chronicle Herald

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