Halifax: Open for Business and Optimistic

Posted: February 18, 2021

When the COVID-19 pandemic shut down borders worldwide and severely impacted cities across the country, Halifax’s business community and local government rallied to support one another.

Businesses and individuals collectively made public health the top priority — holding one another accountable to do the right thing and take care of each other — by using mandatory masks, socially distancing and limiting gatherings in both homes and workplaces.

“We’ve done exceptionally well compared to other parts of the world. We’ve locked down, we’ve paid the price as one of the first ones to have the masking policy and the 14-day quarantine, all of these things have, to borrow a phrase from the past, been short-term pain for long-term gain,” says Mayor Mike Savage.

“There has certainly been more takeout from local restaurants, and the whole shop local movement has been very strong… The other way people have helped is by being generous and supporting things like the United Way and making donations to charities.”

The results: compared to much of the world, Halifax has very low COVID-19 numbers and is largely open for business. Recent indicators show a promising recovery with employment figures above their pre-pandemic levels. Children have been back at school since September, workers are returning to the office, and customers are continuing to support local stores and restaurants in-store and through pick-up and delivery.

One example of how businesses have adapted and stayed open during challenging times comes from the Port of Halifax.

Keeping the Port Open and Operational

Port Authority President and CEO Captain Allan Gray says that while cargo business dropped due to the economic shutdown, the Port was able to keep operations running thanks to a contingency plan already in place.

“It was important that the ports remained functioning and goods continued to flow through, which meant that employees across the various sectors of the port had to find ways to continue to operate throughout the COVID-19 threat, which through cooperation and collaboration, everybody did very well,” said Captain Gray.

Halifax Port is Open for Business

“People know the Port of Halifax is open for business, and we couldn’t have continued operations throughout COVID-19 without the patience of the community. At one stage we had containers all over the place, and it’s thanks to their support that we can grow and do our work,” said Gray.

“If the ports didn't keep flowing then we would have lost goods on the shelf, then you would have started to have health and well-being issues for communities beyond the initial problem,” said Gray.

Bolstering Businesses Through Challenging Times

Throughout the pandemic, Halifax Partnership has been responding to the urgent needs of businesses while also focusing on economic stabilization and recovery. Along with the Halifax Regional Municipality, they developed and have been implementing Halifax’s COVID-19 Economic Response and Recovery Plan.

“This plan serves as the framework for our collective actions for Halifax’s economic recovery. It is the mechanism that will enable Halifax to get back to our long-term growth trend and chart a path forward for a stronger, more resilient city,” said Wendy Luther, president and CEO of Halifax Partnership.

Since last March, The Partnership team has connected one-on-one with more than 832 businesses to help them navigate and adapt to the many challenges the pandemic has presented. They launched the complimentary Halifax ShopHERE Program, powered by Google, to get local businesses selling online and the Access Local Program, offered in partnership with local start-up vLife, to help small businesses market to local customers. They have also worked closely with the Halifax Chamber of Commerce, Discover Halifax, and other key partners in the city on buy local campaigns to boost business and consumer confidence.

There is a silver lining in the countless ways that businesses have adapted to challenging economic conditions, either by retooling their services or developing products to support COVID-19 efforts.

When orders slowed down in the spring, Ace Machining quickly pivoted to meet the needs of fast food restaurants facing new regulations. The manufacturing company developed trays and debit machine holders that allowed for social distancing, and in stores they created installed clear polycarbonate in medical offices and hair salons. This ability to pivot operations quickly helped keep Ace Machining from laying off workers.

When their lab at Dalhousie University was shut down due to the pandemic in the spring, Clean Valley Bio-filtration Technologies shifted focus from R&D of water treatment systems to improving Personal Protective Equipment production. They worked on an antivirus solution that could be applied to any fabric and developed an antiviral mask out of a seaweed-based material.

In October, Halifax-based startup Rimot.io Inc. partnered with Halifax Partnership, through the Halifax Innovation Outpost, and Volta to test a safer and more secure way to screen for COVID-19 with their new their RimotHEALTH Workplace Virus Threat Screening. They are now deploying this turnkey cloud-based solution across North America and Europe.

These are just a few examples of the many ways Halifax companies have pivoted, responded and in some cases grown their operations over the past year.

No Signs of Slowing Down

At the Port Authority, Gray and his team continue to sell Halifax as a key destination port to international companies. Having moved to Nova Scotia from Australia in 2019, Gray is working to bring global partners to work with companies here and he sells prospects on the quality of life and other benefits of the city. He says the talented local workforce is a key feature of the port city, along with relatively low operation costs, and safety during the pandemic.

“We’ve employed some great talent. I keep highlighting where we’re winning in Halifax,” said Gray, adding that the Port Authority has recently hired local graduates for roles including planning, business analysis, and engineering.

At Halifax Partnership, the Investment Attraction team continues to see interest from companies that are considering expanding to Halifax. Since April last year, they’ve attracted 15 new companies including: Axis Canada, which opened their new Business Technology Center in Halifax in early 2020 and has hired over 180 people so far; Shopify, which has hired over 150 employees to work remotely from Nova Scotia; Arcurve, a software development company headquartered in Calgary with offices in Houston and Vancouver; and, NorthBay Solutions, a Boston based technology company.

Moving Forward

After a year of tremendous growth in 2019, with record population and labour force growth and the best GDP growth in a decade, this past year has been challenging for several industries. However, there are positive signs of economic stabilization and recovery with the release of recent population and employment numbers by Statistics Canada.

Halifax Port COVID-19 Business

In January, Stats Canada reported that among Canada’s 35 major cities (Census Metropolitan Areas), Halifax had the second-highest population growth rate from July 2019 to July 2020 at 2.1%. This represents growth of 9,015 people driven by net international migration.

While the hardest hit industries of tourism, hospitality and retail are rebounding more slowly due to ongoing restrictions, recent data show recovery in overall employment levels. From January 2020 to January 2021, Halifax added 4,600 jobs, an increase of 2.0% over pre-pandemic levels. This growth was number one across all 35 Canadian CMAs.

Luther says the Partnership expects to see continued impacts of COVID-19 for the short- to medium-term, but the future looks optimistic.

Next Up: Local Talent Growing in Halifax Tech Industry

Halifax is quickly becoming a destination for those who work in the tech industry. IBM's Nova Scotia Client Innovation Centre has first-hand seen the growth in both the industry and talent pool in Halifax.



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