Star­tups fu­elling Hal­i­fax boom

Nova Scotia city res­onates as an anti-Toronto — many big city charms, but few big-city headaches

The Hamilton Spectator - - OPINION - BRETT BUNDALE

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.”

AN­DREW VAUGHAN, THE CANA­DIAN PRESS

The Nova Cen­tre is a $500-mil­lion mixed-use devel­op­ment un­der con­struc­tion in down­town Hal­i­fax.

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