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Marine Atlantic announced the go ahead of its plan to construct a new facility in Port aux Basques last Tuesday, April 6. From left: Murray Hupman( Marine Atlantic President and CEO), Gudie Hutchings (MP, Long Range Mountains), John Spencer (Mayor, Channel-Port aux Basques), and Gary O’Brien (Chair, Marine Atlantic Board of Directors).- Rosalyn Roy / Wreckhouse Press Inc.

PORT AUX BASQUES – More than two years after announcing plans to construct a new facility for its Port aux Basques operations, Marine Atlantic released a statement confirming that it will proceed. The project was first unveiled in June 2018, and work is now scheduled to begin this Spring at the Crown corporation’s new location along Hardy’s Arterial, opposite the Bruce II Sports Centre.

Marine Atlantic President and CEO Murray Hupman was among the dignitaries in town last Tuesday, Apr. 6 to make the official announcement.

“Initially there was the intention to move ahead with the new building. However, once we started to unravel that, we realized that we didn’t have all the proper approvals and protocols in place with the federal government, and so that put us back to the drawing board a bit,” said Hupman. “We had to do a business plan – one that aligned with the requirements of the federal government.”

Working with other departments, such as the Treasury Board and Finance, to ensure everything was up to snuff took time, and then COVID-19 swept the globe, slowing matters further.

“When COVID hit, we sort of put a lot of things on slow burn; in some cases put them off for about a year.”

That didn’t mean efforts had halted completely. Hupman observed that despite the pandemic, Marine Atlantic’s Board of Directors, led by Chair Gary O’Brien, continued to push forward to get the project approved.

“It’s been a major initiative of the board since I was appointed,” said O’Brien, who assumed the role of Chair in Nov. 2021 for a five-year term. O’Brien has over 30 years of public service experience, but shared a personal satisfaction that the new building will be finished during his tenure.

“If you’re going to put yourself out there in public service, you want to see some reality to the efforts that you’ve put in. It would be disappointing if you looked back and couldn’t say you achieved this and this and this.”

In fact, getting the final go ahead for the new building is only one item on O’Brien’s To Do list for the Board, though he’s not quite ready yet to reveal what else they are working on.

“Hopefully they’ll become more known as things evolve,” said O’Brien. “But you know the board is very committed to this, we’re excited, we’re anxious to see it started. I pester the CEO all the time as to when we’re going to see the tendering documents.”

Hupman said the corporate plan was approved only about a week ago.

“It’s full steam ahead from the organization’s perspective. It’s now a project fully funded and ready to go.”

Since Marine Atlantic is a Crown corporation, all funding will come from the federal level, noted MP Gudie Hutchings (Long Range Mountains), who was also on hand for last week’s announcement.

“I support Marine Atlantic and the town of Port aux Basques every way I can, and this is huge,” said Hutchings. “It’s going to be a LEED Silver building, so it’s going to be environmentally state of the art, a healthy workplace and healthy environmentally.”

LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmentally Design) is used to certify the sustainability of a structure and is based on points. The more sustainable the building, the more points it scores.

Points are earned through several different categories, including green materials used, energy efficiency, water efficiency, and even access to public transportation. To qualify for a LEED rating, a building must earn a minimum of 40 points. A Silver rating, such as the new Marine Atlantic building, requires a minimum of 50 points. Gold ratings are between 60-79 points and Platinum is scored at 80 and above.

Some of the features in the new building will likely include controls for lights or heat that switch off automatically when the room is not in use, for example.

“I’m glad we’re going in that direction,” said O’Brien. “We’ve put a lot of time and effort into innovations within this company, and innovation, whether you’re dealing with technology or artificial intelligence, it’s all becoming critically important as we move forward as an organization.”

Hutchings says that the environmental lens is being put on every project the Federal government green lights.

“Is it the municipal because of old infrastructure? Is it the fishermen because of rising water temperatures?” she asked. “Everywhere you go Canadians are concerned about the environment in some way, shape and form.”

The intention this year is to finish the ground work phase of the project.

“Some time between June and September we hope to get all the big equipment in and get the land excavated and all the site prepped,” said Hupman. “Run sewer, water, get the rock leveled off, get it on a grade, that type of stuff.”

Once that is completed, Hupman estimated that it will take five or six months to polish off the engineering details and design of the building during Winter 2021. Actual construction is likely to get started in May or June 2022 once the ground is dry enough.

“We’ll go out to tender probably some time in February of next year, probably February or March,” noted Hupman.

“There will be two tender processes. One probably April or May (2021) for the ground work phase of it, and then the big one for the physical building after they’ve finished all the engineering,” offered Hutchings.

If all goes according to plan, the building will be weather tight by Winter 2022, after which work can continue on the inside.

The new facility will allow Marine Atlantic to consolidate all of its regional operations under one roof. Currently around 60 to 70 staff are scattered in five different locations around town, which is less than ideal for a number of reasons.

Not only does the corporation intend to make work more efficient in a healthier environment, they want to provide a place where employees can collaborate a lot easier.

“You’ve got people spread all over the place. You haven’t got that dynamic,” said Hupman. “You get that teamwork. You get that social environment as an organization built back into Marine Atlantic, where it’s been missing now for a while.”

Pandemic protocols have forced a tweak to the original design plans though.

“Our concept was an open concept. It was a concept of collaboration and general collision spaces or meeting spaces as the original design, but with COVID-19 there might not be so many collision spaces,” admitted Hupman. “We will take pandemic requirements and try to build them into the building as much as we can.”

Most of Marine Atlantic’s offices in town are rental properties with the exception of the waterfront location. The building went through some repairs and renovations lately, but is too small to consolidate operations, especially in the new normal of pandemic protocols.

“The only building we actually own is 10 Marine Drive,” explained Hupman. “If we decide that we have no longer any use for it, it actually goes into the government surplus process.”

If that happens, the building will be retained as a federal asset, and government services may choose to re-purpose it for any number of uses or perhaps even choose to sell it.

Assuming COVID permits, Marine Atlantic intends to hold a public information session, perhaps as early as this fall, where it will unveil concept artwork.

“People can come in and actually have a look at it, see what it’s going to look like in the community, what it’s going to look like from the different sight lines,” offered Hupman. “Get people excited about it.”

Count Mayor John Spencer as one of those who are excited. The Town has been working closely with Marine Atlantic on this since 2017, when it first offered suggestions for a suitable location.

“We’ve always been in the loop and it was tremendous for us. This is a great day for Port aux Basques,” said Spencer. “I see it as a magnet. I see it as a development that’s going to move right down through.”

The mayor pointed out that a new business enterprise is already undergoing construction along Hardy’s Arterial on the other side of St. James’ Elementary School.

“This today will be a shot in the arm for that business. I see it as great for the employees that are going into that building. We have the daycare there, we have the rec centre there, we have the schools. I think for attracting new people to our community, this is a good day all the way around.”

Hardy’s Arterial is becoming increasingly popular with pedestrians, and the town has installed LED light poles. Spencer won’t commit to sidewalks just yet, but he’s not saying no either.

“Anything is possible. You know what? There were no lights there until this year,” Spencer pointed out.

MHA Andrew Parsons (Burgeo-La Poile) and Minister of Industry, Energy and Technology (IET) wasn’t able to make the conference but welcomed the announcement.

“The timing didn’t work out,” said Parsons later that afternoon via telephone interview from St. John’s. “I’m thrilled with this news. This is something we’ve all been waiting for for some time.”

Marine Atlantic may be a federal entity but the province has helped the Crown corporation get this project off the ground.

“Its importance can’t be overstated to our entire province. This is one of those things (that) I think we always need to be cognizant of and keep an eye on, and absolutely we played a role. We worked with Marine Atlantic to work towards getting the property, and I think we assisted the entire way,” said Parsons. “We, as a province, have been helpful in any way we can and that’s the way it has to be.”

Parsons says the impact of today’s announcement extends above the obvious.

“Sometimes the biggest impact is the psychological, knowing that we are going to get a beautiful new building,” offered Parsons. “There’s always been sort of a comparison between Nova Scotia and Newfoundland, and for staff and citizens to see this brand new facility shows a commitment to the service, a commitment to our area, and a commitment to the employees.”

Then there is the potential that this kind of large financial commitment to the town may serve to influence future businesses to set up operations in the region.

“You don’t put in infrastructure of this nature without saying, ‘Look, we are here and we’re going to be staying here,’” said Parsons. “This is a great thing for the community and it’s another thing that we, as an area, as a region, need to build on in terms of attracting people to come here, to be here. There’s absolutely so many positives that can be taken out of this and I can’t wait for it to start.”

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