By RYAN KING
– with files from René J. Roy
SOUTHWEST COAST – A recent Marine Atlantic report that examined relocating the St. John’s headquarters to Port aux Basques revealed that the overwhelming majority of the 19 high-level staff at the current headquarters would quit rather than move.
The report also contended that it would be too difficult to hire sufficiently qualified individuals to fill these roles because candidates would not only object to moving to the area, but that qualified candidates are unlikely to be available already living on the Southwest coast. The report also highlighted the concern surrounding a lack of additional necessary resources available in the region, such as law firms and other suppliers.
Residents around the region appeared to take exception to these claims, with some strong condemnations posted on social media.
Mayor of Port aux Basques, John Spencer, says that having the headquarters relocate here and making the town the hub of the Gulf ferry system has long been a goal of the current and past councils.
“Simply put, as Mayor and a lifelong resident, I am proud of our Southwest coast heritage, just as other areas of the province hold their local area in high regard. I am also growing tired of a paternalistic attitude towards rural Newfoundland,” says Spencer.
Spencer believes that having the company offices based in Port aux Basques is entirely feasible, especially given our unique resources.
“We are very proud of (the) contributions of the Southwest coast. Its footprint in moving the country forward in multiple ventures from government services, armed forces, police, health, recreation, education, marine and highway transportation, mining, oil and gas, fishing and countless other sectors from sea to sea has demonstrated that rural Newfoundland can and will compete with the best,” he says.
Spencer understands that families might not want to pull up roots, but believes that alone is not a valid enough reason to stay in St. John’s.
“It is understandable, but do not be so condescending stating for this reason, and this reason only, the corporate structure will suffer. Given the benefit packages offered within Crown corporations, anyone moving to Port aux Basques will be looked after,” maintains Spencer.
Additionally, he also notes that the report said moving the headquarters here would save the organization operational costs, like travel across the island that costs $200,000 annually. Removing that expense would benefit residents of the province.
“The optics of paying out nearly a half-million annually in leasing two floors in an office building in St. John’s to accommodate the needs of 19 employees, and plans to enter another lease this fall in the city, is intolerable,” says the mayor.
He says that regardless of the report’s conclusions, it is well within the power of the Marine Atlantic board to make the move happen.
“(I’m) Extremely disappointed members of the Marine Atlantic’s board will stand back and allow this to continue. It was a board decision, by then Chairperson Sid Hynes, to establish the headquarters in St. John’s during the previous reorganization, and it will take a board decision to change things,” notes Spencer.
Clayton Durnford, Mayor of Rose Blanche – Harbour Le Cou, feels much the same. He believes the report slights the residents of the Southwest coast.
“It doesn’t sound like it’s a very good look at our people. I’m sure there are people capable enough of doing a fine job on what they’re doing, because we have people of all kinds of different sorts of college and stuff,” says Durnford. “That part of it don’t make sense to me.”
The long-serving mayor also understands that people may not want to pick up their roots, but believes there are plenty of qualified people who would be happy to relocate to the Southwest coast.
“I can see it from their point of view. They’re down there, they got their jobs down there, and they don’t want to move. You can see that part of it,” concedes Durnford. “But to say that it wouldn’t work, that people don’t want to move – I can remember, just as an ordinary working man, the biggest part of the people I know always left home and wherever they got work, they went to work.”
George Reid, Mayor of Burgeo, also feels that the idea that qualified people would not want to live on the Southwest coast does not make sense.
“I’d call their bluff on that,” says Reid. “Let’s face it, give them the option to move, and the ones that don’t want to, replace them. Simple as that. There are just as smart people on the West coast as on the East coast.”
Reid also understands the reluctance of the administration to move to a new home, but like his counterparts, says that should not override where the headquarters should be and where the bulk of the Crown corporation’s employees are based.
“That’s where the office should have been to start off with. They made a mistake right from the beginning, setting it up in St. John’s. That’s wrong. It’s an island, and Port aux Basques is the entry point, and it’s going to be. They’re not going to change that,” observes Reid. “That’s where all the marine activity should be. It’s not that bloody difficult a job to schedule to move something is it? It’s only a ferry boat.”
Reid believes that the move should have happened long ago, if only to keep the economic development of both coasts more even.
“Everything should not be down on the Avalon peninsula, simple as that,” says Reid.
Tom Rose, Mayor of Stephenville, also thinks that the report’s conclusion that a headquarters wouldn’t work in Port aux Basques is just nonsense. Rose has a background in human resources, as well as a Master’s degree.
“I really understand recruitment, attraction, retention, and I understand when you are attracting employees – what it takes. So I’ll give you an example. A few years back we needed a Town Clerk in the Town of Stephenville,” shares Rose. “We had 70 applicants from Pan-Canadian, right across this country, this province, North America, and abroad internationally who wanted to apply. So, to say they’re not going to be able to recruit and retain a skilled person for Marine Atlantic? No, this is not NASA.”
Rose also points out that the headquarters for the College of the North Atlantic is actually in Stephenville, not St. John’s.
“Here in Stephenville, we have the college headquarters. The president of our college lives in Stephenville at the college headquarters. So, if the president can live here, anybody can live here. That’s the highest skill set grade that exists in that structure. So, to hear the CEO say that – either, he doesn’t know what he is talking about, or he is prompted by somebody to say what he’s saying.”
Rose confides that his initial reaction to the Marine Atlantic report was feeling it was an incredible disservice to what the Southwest coast offers.
“Port aux Basques – the people there are beautiful people. Twenty minutes up the road from Port aux Basques you’ve got the Codroy Valley, which has really got the capacity to become a national park. It’s a micro-climate. It’s a beautiful landscape. People want to live there,” insists Rose. “I’ll stand up against it to say that these big structures that say you got to stay in the big cities, well, COVID has actually changed the perspective of where people want to live too. Why have people been leaving the cities and coming to Atlantic Canada in small places? They may want to have more fresh air, and live in a place where there’s not a high degree of centigrade temperatures because it’s all concrete and asphalt.”
Rose says Marine Atlantic should be obligated to take the best financial decision that would benefit residents of the province.
“I think there’s a responsibility to the board of directors, Marine Atlantic’s top administration staff, to look at cost cutting measures, because it affects the general public,” says the mayor. “Why should we, in Newfoundland and Labrador, part of Canada, pay an exorbitant high cost to travel 98 miles of water? The fee for a family with their vehicle should be equated to what it would cost you to burn in fuel to go to 98 miles of TCH.”
Rose maintains that relocating the headquarters to Port aux Basques just makes more sense.
“At the end of the day, where’s Marine Atlantic? It’s Port aux Basques. That’s where’s it’s at. It doesn’t need to be in St. John’s, and we’ve got to look at also this province. There’s an imbalance of population. Too much has gone to the East coast, and too little has come to the West coast. We need to balance it out.”
Rose believes Marine Atlantic needs to defend their decision, and has issued a challenge to Marine Atlantic’s executive.
“Come out to the town of Port aux Basques and hold a public meeting, and defend what you’re trying to say here.”