Startups fuelling Halifax boom
Nova Scotia city resonates as an anti-Toronto — many big city charms, but few big-city headaches
Halifax is booming, its skyline awash with construction cranes, and Ontario native Jesse Rodgers can tell you why.
Rodgers, a veteran of Waterloo’s tech startup scene, moved to the Nova Scotia capital a year ago with his wife and four kids. They bought a big house on a quiet, treelined street a stone’s throw from the ocean.
The family bought a boat. They eat supper together almost every night. The kids joined sports teams, and Rodgers coaches hockey in the winter, baseball in the summer.
They are part of a convergence of factors — thriving manufacturing and construction sectors, healthy employment and income gains, strong housing and retail markets, off-the-charts population gains — that have made Halifax one of the country’s fastestgrowing cities, and earned it the title of Canada’s fifth-biggest tech hub.
In a region that is consumed by a narrative of decline, Halifax stands out, and not just because of its fast-changing skyline.
“The startup community in Halifax feels like Waterloo 15 years ago and it’s going to grow,” said Rodgers, who helms the city’s startup entrepreneur hub Volta Labs. “The timing is now for Halifax.”
Halifax has long been lauded for its short commutes, affordable homes, clean air and nearby beaches. It’s home to multiple universities and colleges, military bases, startups and a convenient time-zone and geography.
But the city’s charm may come from what it doesn’t have: Milliondollar teardowns, gruelling commutes to increasingly expensive, far-flung bedroom communities, summertime smog warnings, crush-loaded transit.
Halifax resonates as an anti-Toronto — many big city charms, but few big-city headaches.
The city had a record population boom last year, economic growth has been strong, entrepreneurial activity is on the rise and housing starts are up.
The municipality’s planning department is processing more building permits than ever before. In 2011, for example, the city issued permits for 96 new residential units. Last year, that number soared to 1,040 units.
The city’s per capita population growth in 2016 outpaced Montreal, Vancouver, Ottawa and, just barely, Toronto, according to recent Statistics Canada figures.
Much of the increase came from international immigrants, who made up three-quarters of the city’s 8,147 new residents. Even without a wave of Syrian refugees, it was still a record year.
Ian Munro, chief economist with the Halifax Partnership, the city’s economic development agency, called the two per cent increase in population, to nearly 426,000 residents, “spectacular.”
“I don’t know yet if that’s a trend or a blip,” he said. “We have to wait to see what next year holds.”
Munro suggested international students putting down roots could account for a “good chunk” of newcomers. More than half the immigrants are under the age of 30, while most are under age 45, figures show.
“If you want to be coldly, narrowly economic about it, getting this working-age cohort is the sweet spot,” he said. “They buy homes, start families, build businesses, hire people and establish contacts in their homelands to encourage more immigrants.”
Eddy Ng, a professor at Dalhousie University’s Rowe School of Business in Halifax, said immigrants and refugees are often pulled to big urban centres like Toronto in search of networks.
“But if their first point of entry was Halifax and they studied here and felt comfortable, they are more likely to stay,” he said. “Also immigrants that arrive at an earlier age are more likely to integrate into society.”
Halifax Mayor Mike Savage said a couple things are driving the city’s population boom. The biggest is a growing “stickiness” with immigrants who in the past have landed here and then moved to other places, he said. The city is also a draw for young professionals in search of a balanced lifestyle.
“Particularly among young people, it’s not just about salary,” Savage said. “It’s about what kind of life they can have here.”
The Nova Centre is a $500-million mixed-use development under construction in downtown Halifax.