EDITORIAL: Taking Harbour like buying a pig in a poke

Sarnia is holding out for more money before agreeing to accept Ottawa’s ‘divestiture” of Sarnia Harbour.

But when the feds ante up – and they will – the city should take the deal, bad as it is.

Transport Canada has said to the municipality (and everyone else), “Take our harbour. Please.”

Together with valuable waterfront land its throwing in $5.4 to $6.3 million so a new owner can repair a tired shipping facility in need of dredging, equipment and other upgrades.

City hall staff say that’s a rum deal. In a business plan presented to council March 3, economic development director Peter Hungerford warned councillors that, essentially, they’re buying a pig in a poke. But if you must do it, he added, demand $2.2 million more to cover unforeseen risks and liabilities.

Council agreed. It’s now telling Transport Canada: “Make it $8.56 million and we’ll talk.”

The Harbour has two parts. The north covers the Government Wharf, Seaway Road warehouses, North Slip and dock near Paddy Flaherty’s. The south harbour includes intermittent land and water lots on the St. Clair River between George and Devine streets.

Municipal ownership is risky. Local taxpayers would have obligations in maintenance and operation. The harbour sediment is contaminated, the soil has asbestos and First Nation claims are unsettled. What’s more, Sarnia is basing projected revenue on historic levels of harbour use and ship owners paying up to 300% more to berth here.

But passing on the harbour is also risky. Without a taker, Transport Canada might transfer ownership to the Coast Guard, or it could simply walk away and padlock the gates. That would leave vast stretches of waterfront derelict and out of bounds, kill existing port-related jobs, hurt local businesses that supply good and services to the shipping industry, and kibosh the export dreams of local fabricators in Canada’s oil patch.

The management of major infrastructure is a public trust, and by any reasonable assessment the feds should own and operate Sarnia Harbour.

But Ottawa appears hell-bent on shirking its responsible, so the municipality should take ownership, assuming the full $8.56 million is available. One way forward might be a new transportation commission with regional representation and business acumen to oversee the harbour, and possibly the airport and other infrastructure as well.

Sarnia Harbour is a critical waterfront asset and an important pillar of our economy. Though it comes with risks, the biggest risk of all would be to lose it altogether.

– George Mathewson