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Halifax Mayor Mike Savage at a Q and A forum held for Halifax Regional Municipality Mayor candidates at Pier 21 in Halifax, Sept. 13 2012. Mr. Savage has major plans to improve the city. (PAUL DARROW/GLOBE AND MAIL)
Halifax Mayor Mike Savage at a Q and A forum held for Halifax Regional Municipality Mayor candidates at Pier 21 in Halifax, Sept. 13 2012. Mr. Savage has major plans to improve the city. (PAUL DARROW/GLOBE AND MAIL)

Likely new mayor charged with transforming Halifax Add to ...

Barring an act of God, Mike Savage will be Halifax’s new mayor next month.

With that question settled, the one that can’t yet be answered is how the defeated Liberal MP and son of former Nova Scotia premier John Savage would transform the unwieldy Halifax Regional Municipality into a modern, vibrant 21st century city.

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And when he had the chance on Thursday night at the first of many mayoral forums, the 52-year-old politician provided more generalities than bold answers.

His two main opponents were also there – the deadline to enter the race for the Oct. 20 election passed earlier this week – but they are so far behind in the polls that it seems nearly impossible for them to catch up. Mr. Savage expects to spend about $200,000 on his campaign, compared to the $80,000 one of his opponents figures it will take to run.

“I think we can take a public sector town and turn it into a private sector powerhouse,” Mr. Savage told the crowd, referring to the fact that most of the jobs in Halifax are government jobs, especially given the strong presence of the military. “I don’t think we have hit our full potential.”

It takes three hours to drive across the HRM, as Haligonians call their huge city, which spans from the south shore’s Hubbards to Ecum Secum on the eastern shore. The regional centre for the Atlantic, Halifax has an annual budget of more than $800-million and a population of 390,000.

And it is facing big challenges as young people leave for jobs in the West and Ontario, new developments are delayed and infrastructure ages.

Run for the past 12 years by Mayor Peter Kelly, the city council was considered to have become dysfunctional. So difficult is it to get approval for new development that the beginning of construction on a $25-million project made headlines because it was the first new office building to go up in the downtown for nearly 20 years.

Fights between heritage activists, who want to preserve Halifax’s old buildings, and those who want to see new modern structures and affordable housing downtown have caused the delays.

So it was against this and criticism that the Kelly council was too secretive that community leaders began looking for an alternative – and they found that last year on election night with Mr. Savage’s defeat in the federal riding of Dartmouth-Cole Harbour, which he represented from 2004 to 2011.

As the results were rolling in and it seemed he might lose, he was asked if he would consider running for mayor. About two days later, Cheryl Stewart, who had worked in Paul Martin’s Prime Minister’s Office, took Mr. Savage to lunch and posed the same question. (She is now his campaign director.)

On Parliament Hill, Mr. Savage wasn’t a flashy politician, and he could work with all parties to try to get things done. So no surprise that New Democratic MPs from Halifax, former NDP leader Alexa McDonough, and provincial Progressive Conservatives encouraged him to run and some are helping on his campaign.

In early February, he finally had an answer – he would run against Mr. Kelly. He said he felt his leadership skills could help take the city in a new direction.

Haligonians were anticipating a hot race, but Mr. Kelly announced later that month that he would not seek re-election, explaining that public life had taken a toll on his marriage and personal life. He even admitted to sleeping in his office because he was so focused on his job. He said that Mr. Savage’s candidacy played no role in his decision.

On Thursday night, Mr. Savage commended Mr. Kelly for his work, and told the crowd he knows how to “set the boundaries.”

“I think I know how to work hard,” Mr. Savage said. “But I also know that my first, my primary responsibility is to my wife and to my children, and I would be concerned if anybody had a mayor who ends up not serving his family as part of the process.”

In an interview, Mr. Savage talked about his wish to brand Halifax as the “learning capital of Canada,” noting that it has six universities and one community college. He has met with the university presidents about this.

“I think that if you can pull all of these together, working with the leaders in the education community, fostering entrepreneurial spirit, we can keep more and more young people here, attract more young people here, increase more vibrancy downtown,” he said.

And as he hones his message, Mr. Savage says he is taking nothing for granted. He started campaigning seven months ago, sometimes going to 30 or 40 events a week. In July, he took a leave from his communications and marketing job.

“We’ve been going at it hard a long time, but we are certainly into the serious guts of the campaign now,” he said. “It’s the homestretch.”

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