Port Hawkesbury mulls potential REN exit

PORT HAWKESBURY: Town officials here expect to decide by this fall whether to continue with their membership in the Eastern Strait Regional Enterprise Network (ESREN).

Launched in 2015 to replace the Regional Development Authorities (RDAs) that had previously guided community economic development initiatives across Nova Scotia, the REN model took a downward turn this past March when all five of the Eastern Strait body’s current members submitted letters of intent to leave the organization. Along with Port Hawkesbury, these include the Town and County of Antigonish and the Municipalities of the Districts of Guysborough and St. Mary’s.

Addressing the issue during a special town council meeting held Thursday afternoon at the Port Hawkesbury Civic Centre’s Shannon Studio, councillors voted unanimously to contact provincial officials to address governance issues, the overall funding formula and a recent funding shortfall related to the ESREN.

At the same time, Mayor Brenda Chisholm-Beaton told the council session that the province’s response is expected to go a long way towards helping councillors make their final decision in the coming months.

“It’s currently an ongoing dialogue, but we’re hoping that sometime this fall we’ll be able to reach a decision, and it’s going to be a ‘yes’ or a ‘no,’” Chisholm-Beaton predicted.

“Certainly, a motion of council will be sought out pending the reaction of the province.”

The mayor and several councillors, including Trevor Boudreau, suggested that the current REN model does not resemble the structure proposed by the provincial government in the run-up to the RDAs’ dismantling.

“This funding model is different from what we had proposed to us by the province three years ago,” said Boudreau, who also described the provincial promise of increased funds for economic development within the REN launch as “a bit of a farce.”

The town’s Chief Administrative Officer (CAO), Terry Doyle, also suggested that municipal units that contribute funding to the REN structure are often left feeling without a true voice within the system.

“The theory behind the REN is that it would be industry-led, and I think that’s a question that the municipal and provincial governments had,” Doyle told the June 28 meeting.

“As the municipal partner, we provide the funding, but we don’t have any real input.”

Councillor Jeremy White also suggested that Port Hawkesbury’s position as a founding member of ESREN should guarantee the town a spot on the organization’s board of directors, while Deputy Mayor Hughie MacDougall expressed doubt that the REN model is significantly different from its predecessor organizations.

“I don’t see any difference before the RENs now and the RDAs or ECBC [Enterprise Cape Breton Corporation] – I’d like to see on paper what the differences are,” MacDougall declared.

Mayor Chisholm-Beaton suggested that the REN model was designed to focus more specifically on local economic development than the broader community-based mandate of the RDAs, but she added that she would solicit answers on MacDougall’s question from ESREN executive director John Beaton.