Special Analysis: Rural Halifax

A Rural Halifax Profile


Halifax’s new economic strategy, Halifax Economic Growth Plan 2016-2021, identifies quality of life as being at the core of the region’s value proposition. It emphasizes the uniqueness of Halifax as a community with access to “big city” amenities while maintaining a “small town” feel and the opportunity for residents to enjoy a proximity to rural, coastal, and natural beauty and recreational opportunities that other large cities in Canada do not offer. Rural communities within the municipality are, thus, of critical importance to Halifax’s value proposition to residents and businesses, both current and prospective.

However, due to Halifax’s reputation as the urban centre of Nova Scotia, its rural communities are often overlooked and their economic challenges and opportunities unrecognized or misunderstood in economic development discussions. The goal of this analysis is to shed some light on these issues, with a statistical profile of the municipality’s rural regions and a discussion of key challenges and opportunities related to the businesses within.

Further statistical information on the municipality’s rural regions and communities can be found in the data workbook available on the Halifax Index’s website (halifaxindex.com).

Halifax's Rural Communities

In most contexts, including economic development and policy discussions, Halifax is seen as the urban centre of the province. In recent noteworthy policy and research reports, such as the One Nova Scotia Now or Never report, the word “Halifax” is used more or less synonymously with the word “urban” in the Nova Scotia context. There is, of course, good reason for this. With close to 418,000 people, Halifax accounts for just under half of the provincial population total and is the largest centre in Atlantic Canada.

However, the notion that all of Halifax’s population lives in an urban environment is far from the truth. According to data from the 2011 census and Statistics Canada’s definition of an urban “population centre,” about 306,600 people lived in urban parts of the municipality at that time, with the remaining 84,000 – one in five residents – living in rural areas. This means that Halifax is home not only to the largest urban population in Nova Scotia, but also the largest rural population in the province (though rural residents account for a smaller share of the total population than in any other county in the province).

Halifax is unique in this regard among Canadian cities of its size or larger. Though Halifax has only the fifth largest rural population among Canadian census metropolitan areas, or CMAs, (the statistical unit used by Statistics Canada to measure city-level data), it has by far the largest share of its population living in rural areas (21.5%) compared to CMAs with more than 250,000 people. Ottawa has the next largest rural share, at 12% of the total population.

                  Total and Rural Population

Geographically the rural population in Halifax is spread widely. Since amalgamation, the municipality encompasses 5,500 km2 of land, making it the largest municipality in the country. For the purposes of this analysis, rural Halifax has been divided into three general areas: Inner Rural, Western Rural, and Eastern Rural.

Generally, the Inner Rural and Western Rural areas represent commuter sheds of the urban core, and their demographic and other summary statistics reflect that. Population growth rates from 2006 to 2011 in those regions were the highest in the municipality, as population flows and property development generally favoured suburbanization during that time. The age profile in those regions shows a higher proportion of young children and 35- to 54-year-olds, suggesting those regions are home to many young families. Their overall post-secondary attainment rate is around 70%, about the same as in the urban core, favouring apprenticeship and college training over university to a somewhat larger extent. Labour force participation rates are similar to the urban core and unemployment rates are actually lower.

The Eastern Rural area has a much lower population density and is geographically much farther from the urban core. As a result, it faces unique economic challenges and opportunities compared to the rest of the municipality, more akin to that of rural areas in the rest of the province. The population in that region declined slightly from 2006 to 2011. In part, that was because it drew a proportionately smaller number of interprovincial and international migrants than other parts of the municipality. It did, however, draw a similar proportion of migrants from within the province, perhaps reflecting lifestyle similarities to that of other rural parts of the province. The region’s population is also older than the rest of the municipality; the share of its population age 45 or higher (51.9%) is almost 10 percentage points higher than in the urban core (42.3%).

The Eastern Rural labour force is highly educated, but labour market outcomes generally lag behind other parts of the municipality to a small extent. Post-secondary attainment rates are somewhat lower, which likely reflects the tendency of young university graduates to congregate in urban areas. However, there is a much higher percentage of trades workers and college graduates than in the urban centre. The participation rate lags other parts of the municipality, likely reflecting the older population, and the unemployment rate is higher at 8.1%, though still better than other rural parts of the province. The region has the highest rate of self-employment in the municipality, perhaps reflecting the large numbers of people working in agriculture, forestry, and fishing. The seasonal nature of these industries is also reflected in the share of the labour force that worked fewer than 40 weeks in 2011, which was almost five percentage points higher in the Eastern Rural region than in the urban core.

             Rural Communities Map


Not surprisingly, the industrial structure of rural areas of the municipality – especially the Eastern Rural area – differs from that of the urban core. This can be seen in the industrial breakdown of both employment data and business counts. In general, goods-producing industries are much more prevalent in rural areas of the municipality. In the Eastern Rural area, for example, goods-producing industries account for 28% of employment and 38% of businesses, compared to around 10% in both categories in the urban core. In particular, this is due to a higher share of employment and businesses in fishing and agriculture, and, to a lesser extent, construction and manufacturing. The region accounts for roughly half of businesses in fishing and animal farming in the municipality.

Though relatively less prevalent, due to a lower share of businesses and employment involved in professional service categories like public administration or financial and scientific services, services overall still account for the lion’s share of employment and business counts in rural parts of the municipality. Consumer services like retail trade are just as important in rural areas, and transportation and warehousing accounts for a larger share of business and employment than in the urban core.

     Summary Stats Graph


A Different Set of Challenges

Given the differences in population size and density, and the proximity to amenities and services between rural and urban areas, businesses in rural parts of the municipality face a different set of economic challenges. In interviews conducted as part of the Halifax Partnership’s SmartBusiness Program, businesses in both urban and rural areas tend to identify similar business climate factors as the most important: workforce availability and quality, the tax and regulatory environment, and communications infrastructure like broadband Internet and cell phone services. Rural businesses were more likely to list transportation infrastructure like provincial highways and port facilities as a key factor as well. Where the primary differences between rural and urban businesses lie is in their rating of these factors, in particular related to workforce availability and communications infrastructure.

In the face of aging demographics and increasing demands for higher skills, workforce availability and qualifications are increasingly cited as concerns by business in both urban and rural settings globally. Throughout Halifax, businesses cite this as the business climate factor most important to their success. However, rural-based businesses have significantly more trouble finding the labour they need due to the smaller, more spread out, and older local population. While many businesses in the eastern regions of the municipality try to recruit from the urban core, limited transportation options make it difficult for residents of the core to commute to those businesses for work.

In the past year especially, businesses located on the Eastern Shore have increasingly cited issues with communications infrastructure – broadband Internet and cell phone services – as a major issue. This infrastructure is crucial for communicating with clients and for online sales. While communities along the Eastern Shore receive provincially subsidized broadband Internet, in practice, businesses often report speed and service-outage problems that significantly affect their operations. Currently, broadband service in rural Halifax is subsidized through the Broadband for Rural Nova Scotia initiative. This year, the province has contracted EY and Concertia Technologies Inc., to conduct a study identifying gaps that still exist in rural service and potential solutions.

Ironically, rural communities within the Halifax Regional Municipality sometimes face challenges obtaining government funding for projects because of their attachment to HRM and a perception that this means they are not truly “rural”. For example, the federal government’s Small Communities Fund is intended to support important infrastructure projects in small and rural communities across the country. However, in order to be eligible, applicants must be municipalities (or applying on behalf of municipalities) with fewer than 100,000 residents. Though all of the communities along the Eastern Shore meet this requirement, they are considered to be a part of HRM and, thus, cannot access these funds.

                   Employment Share by Industry


                     Business Location Share by Industry


Opportunities for the Future

Despite the unique challenges faced by rural communities, opportunities exist for economic growth and development. Important to the sustainability of development efforts in those communities is the concept of asset-based community development (ABCD). ABCD is a philosophy that promotes identification and development of natural and unique assets and advantages that exist in a community.

One great example of ABCD in practice is the ongoing work by Destination Eastern and Northumberland Shores (DEANS) in partnership with the larger community and ACOA’s Strategic Tourism Expansion Program (STEP) to develop tourism-related economic opportunities in the Eastern Shore. The area’s unique coastline includes numerous coastal and inland parks and wilderness areas as well as the colloquially known 100 Wild Islands. These are the same islands that have received recent attention as a result of Nova Scotia Nature Trust’s 100 Wild Islands Legacy Campaign, which focuses on raising funds and working with private landowners to convert a number of the islands from private ownership to protected lands. This is one of Canada’s last largely untouched archipelagoes, which offers a plethora of unique and attractive recreational, adventure, educational, and nature-based tourism opportunities.

As part of this work, DEANS and the Nova Scotia Department of Environment is developing a comprehensive inventory to identify assets and tourism opportunities, as well as things like ecologically sensitive lands or historic Aboriginal sites that need to be protected. Further work will include the development of a unique brand and the identification of necessary infrastructure to support visitation to the area. This could include things like boat launches and anchorages, highway look-offs, and public washroom facilities.

Importantly, the ultimate goal of this process is to enrich the quality of life for local residents. This means improving local employment opportunities and increasing the flow of tourism dollars into the region. It will be up to local private tourism businesses to identify and develop opportunities stemming from the STEP process to achieve this goal.

The Port of Sheet Harbour represents another example of ABCD employed in the Eastern Shore. Capitalizing on a natural rural advantage over urban environments – availability of open space – the Port is able to handle break bulk freight that is too large to be handled by facilities located in the urban core, such as wind turbine blades. As such, the Port has benefited from strong major project activity in the Atlantic region in recent years, especially related to the development of renewable and offshore energy projects.

A new generation of young entrepreneurs are also recognizing the opportunities for a different way of life and are investing in the Eastern Shore. In keeping with what differentiates the area, the new businesses and start-ups have tapped into the area’s unique opportunities through tourism and local agriculture and aquaculture.

Sober Island is an area known for its seafood, and business owners Trevor and Michelle Munroe are making waves with their award-winning oysters across North America. Sober Island Oysters has recently reached a size of 3.5 million oysters in the water last year. Another young Eastern Shore entrepreneur, Rebecca Atkinson, has just launched Sober Island Brewing Company, a mobile craft beer bar and micro-brewery, with plans to become permanent in the area and contribute to the growing tourism industry. Ryan Murphy, co-chair of the Strategic Tourism Expansion Program, runs a small business consulting and marketing agency geared to helping local businesses on the Eastern Shore grow. Emma Kiley is the owner of Uprooted Market & Cafe in Musquodoboit Harbour and is focused on creating resilience in her community by improving the accessibility of locally grown food for people living along the Eastern Shore. Her café space is often used to hold community and networking events for entrepreneurs in the area. These young entrepreneurs recognize that by investing in rural Halifax they are supporting and promoting local industry, creating jobs, and breathing new life into the area.

Opportunities like these, based on natural, competitive advantages and developed with the engagement of the local community, represent the way forward for rural communities in Halifax. These communities represent an important part of the municipality, and their development and sustainability will be key to delivering on the city’s economic growth plan goals in the coming years.