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Pedestrians walk past the $500-million Nova Centre construction site on Argyle Street in downtown Halifax on Friday, March 4, 2016. Darren Calabrese for The Globe and Mail (Darren Calabrese For The Globe and Mail)
Pedestrians walk past the $500-million Nova Centre construction site on Argyle Street in downtown Halifax on Friday, March 4, 2016. Darren Calabrese for The Globe and Mail (Darren Calabrese For The Globe and Mail)

Small Business

Small business could be casualty of infrastructure push Add to ...

Mike Campbell says the construction of Halifax’s Nova Centre has destroyed his business.

The $500-million project being built in downtown Halifax will include a convention centre, a hotel and office space. But as construction drags on – the Nova Centre’s developers announced this spring it won’t be completed until March, 2017, roughly 14 months past its original target date – small businesses near the facility like Mr. Campbell’s The Carleton Music Bar and Grill are hurting. “Time is running out for a lot of us, especially me,” he says.

As cities across Canada replace old infrastructure or build new office buildings, public transit, and bridges, small businesses can become collateral damage to progress, losing customers and significant revenue as these multi-year projects go on around them.

Mr. Campbell estimates business at The Carleton has declined about 30 per cent every year since the Nova Centre construction began in 2013. He says he’s got approximately 12 people working at the popular restaurant and live music venue now, but he used to employ twice as many. The loss of parking spaces, diverted traffic, unexpected power outages and noise and dust that has accompanied the construction of the Nova Centre has driven away customers. Mr. Campbell expects he will have to close his doors before the centre is finished. “Without a huge uptick in business, there’s no way we can survive this,” he says.

George Dark, a partner with the Toronto-based planning and urban design firm Urban Strategies Inc., says this problem isn’t going away. In fact, in the fall fiscal update, Finance Minister Bill Morneau announced the federal government is ramping up its focus on on infrastructure projects. “I don’t see us getting less of this in the future, I see us getting more,” Mr. Dark says. “Infrastructure needs in Canadian cities are growing.”

Mr. Dark says municipal governments must work with businesses well before construction begins to identify issues and develop plans to make any disruptions as painless as possible. “The worst cases happen when people do nothing and the municipality says, ‘Boo-hoo, you’ve just got to work through it.’” he says. “Municipalities have got to help.”

Experts say a myriad of solutions can come out these discussions. Andy Yan, an urban planner and director of Simon Fraser University’s The City Program, says signage that lets the public know businesses are still open in construction zones is a simple and effective way to lessen the disruption. Phasing construction, so it’s not all happening at the same time and finding ways to replace lost parking spaces can also minimize disruption to businesses. “It’s just smart policy to think about how these projects might affect small businesses and then figure out fair and transparent mitigation,” Mr. Yan says.

Maureen Sirois says that kind of thinking has been lacking for Toronto’s $5.3-billion Eglinton Crosstown light rail transit project. Ms. Sirois chairs the Eglinton Way Business Improvement Area, an organization that represents approximately 200 businesses and property owners in the neighbourhood. In May, Metrolinx – the entity that oversees public transit in the Greater Toronto and Hamilton area, announced its construction plan for Crosstown’s Avenue Road station.

Metrolinx proposed that the laneway on the north side of Eglinton be closed long term to make room for equipment. Concrete barriers and fencing eight-feet high would be erected in front of shops, and on-street parking would be eliminated.

The Eglinton BIA was not impressed. Ms. Sirois says the plan threatened the future of 15 businesses employing between 100 to 120 people in the construction area because it would dramatically reduce foot traffic until the station is completed in 2019. “Nobody is against the LRT. What we are against is the project impacting the livelihood of these businesses with no consideration given for how they were going to survive this unprecedented construction project,” Ms. Sirois says.

Several working group meetings were held between Metrolinx, residents, businesses and the city councillor for the area that resulted in changes to the plan in July. Ms. Sirois is hoping they will help the businesses survive the construction period. But the BIA isn’t finished fighting. She says its next battle will be seeking compensation from the City of Toronto for any loss of business.

Mr. Campbell in Halifax is also looking for financial compensation. The Carleton is one of seven Halifax businesses pursuing a class action lawsuit seeking compensation for losses caused by the Nova Centre construction. The businesses are suing the municipal, provincial and federal governments, the developer Argyle Developments Inc., its parent company Rank Incorporated and the Halifax Convention Centre Corporation.

Bob Bjerke, the director of planning for the Halifax Regional Municipality, says there is no doubt public and private infrastructure projects impact businesses and it can be more difficult to solve their issues. “Those businesses can’t get up and move,” he says. “You’ve got fewer options for how to mitigate them.”

But he also says with many Canadian cities needing to replace aging infrastructure, municipalities have to address that. “If you don’t do these projects, then you are dealing with emergencies and it’s difficult to put mitigation in place for that.”

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