The Strait Area Chamber of Commerce (SACC) hosted its annual State of the Strait Region Business Update at the Port Hawkesbury Civic Centre on March 21.

SACOC executive director Amanda Mombourquette explained the update is an opportunity to showcase accomplishments and opportunities in the Strait area business community.

Headliner David Burton, co-founder of Headland Cultivation Company, reviewed plans to establish a facility in Lennox Passage. Burton said he has been working full-time since the fall of 2016 to establish a cultivation facility in Nova Scotia.

Over the past year, Burton reached out to municipalities across the province to find an appropriate site for the project. With the help of the Cape Breton Partnership, he found support from the Municipality of the County of Richmond. The Headland Cultivation Company now has legal rights to 29.7 acres of land in the northwest corner of the Richmond Light Industrial Park overlooking the Lennox Passage Bridge.

Burton explained the multi-million dollar development project involves hundreds of thousands of plants, with the possibility of financial returns in the tens of millions of dollars.

In phase 1, Headland Cultivation is looking to employee 50-60 people and eventually more than 100 in coming phases. Burton said the majority of jobs his company creates will be accessible to workers without extensive specialized training.

Other highlights included a discussion on agricultural and aquaculture developments, which featured Jeff Lee, of Sam’s Point Oyster Company based in Mabou. Lee shared some ideas for the future, including a potential multi-purpose marine facility in Mabou that would include a sailing school, a watershed research and development station, an oyster processing facility, a hatchery, and an oyster bar.

Michelle Theriault of Université Sainte-Anne Petit de Grat Campus and Marine Research Centre reiterated Lee’s presentation about untapped opportunities in local aquaculture including oyster, sea scallop and seaweed farming, as well as land-based aquaculture. Theriault said there is great potential in aquaculture, which is an “underdeveloped industry” and the Strait area is well positioned to take advantage.

Transportation and infrastructure was also a key theme. David Morgan of Celtic Air Services Ltd. reported on the upcoming Cape Breton Air Show scheduled for May and plans to connect local attractions by establishing a helicopter tour company out of the Port Hawkesbury Airport. The company is also floating the idea of an Emergency Health Services Life Flight helicopter out of the airport.

Rose Paul of Paqtnkek Mi’kmaw Nation discussed the process that led to the Paqtnkek Interchange Project which will provide improved access to land that was previously disconnected by Highway 104.

Perhaps the biggest news of the day was delivered by Keith Flynn of Martin Marietta who announced an investment of $50 million over the next five to six years to modernize equipment at the Porcupine Mountain Quarry. He said the upgrades will increase capacity by approximately 50 per cent.

Flynn said the outlook for aggregate intensive highway and street construction in 2018 and 2019 is very positive, considering Fixing American’s Surface Transportation Act and other state and local initiatives south of the border.

These factors, along with outdated and aging plant equipment at the Auld’s Cove operation, led Martin Marietta to initiate the modernization project.

The investment will allow the quarry to move product to market more efficiently. Currently, the facility runs three small plants spread across the property with approximately 10 crushers and over 100 conveyer belts. The new system will use a tunnel to move the product to the final phase of production where it will be washed and loaded onto ships.

Flynn said the quarry’s current capacity is approximately 2,000 tonnes per hour. Once the overhaul is completed, the number will increase to 3,000.

The Porcupine Mountain facility is one of Canada’s largest producers of construction aggregate – a mixture of materials such as crushed stone, sand and gravel – that is used in the production of concrete and asphalt for roads and other infrastructure.Flynn said the quarry operates 24 hours a day, seven days a week and employs 117 people, as well as a number of contractors. In 2017, Martin Marietta loaded 55 ships and 25 barges with about 3.5 million tonnes of aggregate.

Flynn estimated work on the first phase will start this summer and take about a year.

These are all strong examples of how the Strait area economy has braved the harrowing past decade and is now poised for growth.

The fact that many people are starting to invest their money here, that companies are spending millions of dollars here, and that individuals are starting and growing businesses here, are all proof.

This is in stark contrast to the headlines of a decade ago when the future of the paper mill was uncertain, and residents of the Strait area collectively held their breath during the sale process for the Point Tupper operation.

That harrowing time seems a distant memory now that there are many expamples to be bullish about the future of the Strait area.