OPINION: Sarnia better off with Harbour

Generations of Sarnians to come can only hope that Mike Kelch is wrong.

Kelch was the lone naysayer when city council held its nose last week and voted to accept ownership of Sarnia Harbour.

Many councillors had serious reservations about the deal, which will see Ottawa hand over waterfront land and $8.56 million for current and future needs.

But only Kelch said the “burden of risk” placed on local taxpayers is too great to bear.

“I don’t have a clue how to operate a harbour. And I don’t think anyone else up here does,” he told fellow councillors and city hall staff.

Indeed, operating the sprawling wharves, warehouses and water lots of Sarnia Harbour is far outside the municipality’s core mandate of roads, police and garbage collection.

And the unknown unknowns of the venture are, well, unknown.

Much of the $8.56 million Sarnia is getting will be used to dredge the main basin and north slip. Remediating ground asbestos will consume another big chunk.

That leaves $2 million and change to be set aside for unforeseen “liabilities and risks” that might arise from operating the facility.

The Harbour will provide revenue for the city from the ships that use it, so there is a dedicated revenue stream But whether it will be enough to maintain daily operations, with extra set aside for future capital needs, remains to be seen.

It’s a tough call. Nevertheless, we believe council did make the right decision.

Had it done nothing an important cog in the local economy would have been left unsecured, with equally unknown risks. What we do know is the Harbour already provides direct port-related and spin-off jobs, a market for producers and suppliers, and, with a few modifications, could be a launching pad for fabricators eager to supply Canada’s oil patch.

It might one day actually make money for the city.

What’s more, this is prime waterfront land we’re talking about, something that’s in short supply these days.

It’s possible future generations will wonder why the city ever agreed to own the Harbour. But it’s much more likely they will be thankful for the foresight to keep it in public hands.

– George Mathewson