By Tom Peters

Call it a success story or a sign of growth. In June of this year, Ambassatours Gray Line, the region’s largest tour company, opened its new building on Bayne Street, in north-end Halifax.

The 32,000-square-foot building combines the company’s corporate office and state-of-the-art, 12-bay commercial maintenance service facility which maintains the companies, buses, tour coaches and double-decker bus fleet. Ambassatours, which offers shore excursions to cruise ship passengers, also operates several harbour tour vessels, waterfront gift shops and a restaurant.

The building incorporates several green features including a high-efficiency heating and cooling system, a full in-floor heating system and a concrete structure that uses award-winning CarbonCure CO2- omission reduction technology.

For Krista Dempsey, Vice President of Real Estate for the Halifax Port Authority (HPA), having Ambassatours build in that location on port authority land just made good sense.

After purchasing the property from the Halifax Regional Municipality, the Halifax Port Authority banked the land until the right opportunity came along. “Now you see a beautiful building that Ambassatours built and that makes such perfect sense,” said Dempsey. “Ambassatours-Gray Line is one of the largest tour operators in Canada and is a huge part of the cruise industry in Halifax. This new building allows them to operate more efficiently, from one central location, which makes it a win-win situation for everyone involved.

Ambassatours Gray Line entered into a long-term lease with the Port Authority which is a good fit for the company, says Dennis Campbell, Ambassatours’ CEO.

“Such a superior location on the peninsula for an operations base as comprehensive as ours is invaluable. We are strategically positioned near the port, the city centre and the highways. It really couldn’t be a better location in HRM for us,” he said.

The Ambassatours’ story is what Dempsey and her staff set out to do, which is provide real estate solutions that work for both the Port Authority and the tenant.

The Port Authority manages 260 acres of marine industrial land on behalf of the Government of Canada. The land includes waterfrontage and water lots along with a small amount of inland space. Approximately 160 tenant leases generate over 50 per cent of the HPA’s annual revenues.

“Our real estate department is very much a strategic business development enabler,” said Dempsey.

The Halifax Port Authority manages 260 acres of federal lands on behalf of the Government of Canada. Larger ports like Halifax operate as self-sustaining crown agencies.

Over the years, there have been suggestions from private interests to sell some of the port lands and develop them for residential use. One common target has been the south end property where Halterm Container Terminal Limited operates. However, the Halifax Port Authority’s letters patent, found within the Canada Marine Act, spell out real estate uses. “The letters patent outline what we are allowed to do. The Halifax Port Authority is not allowed to use the land for residential development,” said Dempsey.

She briefly alluded to the occasional request for residential development at the Halterm location but praised it as “an ideal berth for container ships, and that facility has seen significant investment over the past few years,” which included an extended pier, state-of-the-art gates and truck marshalling facilities, new super post-Panamax cranes and yard equipment. The terminal operator, the Government of Canada and the Halifax Port Authority have all contributed financially.

As a landlord port, the marine portfolio is the Port Authority’s largest line of business. The two container terminals are privately operated under long-term leases. Richmond Terminals is a common user facility with multiple users.

On the leasing of retail space, “clustering” compatible businesses is a key consideration.

“There is limited space so we have to plan strategically,” said Dempsey. “We want to cluster. It is no different than if a developer had a couple of apparel shops, they may want a shoe shop to complete the outfit.”

The Halifax Seaport district has evolved into a cultural and events destination. “We are fortunate to have anchors such as the Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21, NSCAD University, and the Mary Black Gallery and Gift Shop. We also have the cruise business seven months of the year, so that really helps us to build the Seaport district as a destination,” she said.

In the Annex building are retail outlets such as Garrison Brewing Co., a group of active artisans and the East Coast Lifestyle flagship store. Across the street from those businesses is the popular Halifax Seaport Farmers’ Market.

The gradual development of the Halifax Seaport didn’t happen without vision. There was a long-term master plan.

“Fifteen years ago, those lands were underutilized and we really needed to integrate them into the larger city,” said Dempsey. “It was important to create a space that was welcoming for our cruise guests so they gained a favourable impression of our city as soon as they got off the vessel. But we wanted it to be more than just a seasonal destination. We wanted to create the type of experience that encouraged visitors and locals to visit all year round,” she said.

“It was also important that we maintained the marine side, because at the end of the day, we are still a crown agency focused on maximizing these marine industrial lands to their full potential for the benefit of all,” Dempsey explained. “It’s all about the movement of cargo, the movement of people, and economic development. It’s like a jigsaw puzzle, trying to fit all these pieces together, but the picture is starting to emerge.”

So what lies ahead for port lands?

“Stay tuned,” says HPA spokesman Lane Farguson. “We are in the early stages of a master planning exercise looking at all three lines of business which are cargo, cruise and real estate. The last round of master planning got us to where we are at now, and we are now setting our sights on the next five to 10 years.”