Photo by Dennys Llic

Creative industries: the final frontier of international advantage?

Demolition work is underway in Halifax’s old World Trade and Convention Centre, with three floors of former convention space being significantly reconfigured. Within a year, if all goes to plan, the space will be transformed into the Link Arts Centre—84,000 square feet of creative space in downtown Halifax.

The Link is expected to include a 1,700-person performance hall, TV and virtual reality production space, two dance studios, a 160-seat cinema, rehearsal spaces, and a co-working space for cultural non-profits and start-ups in the creative sector.

In all, it’s a major repurposing of an old building, and an effort to bring significant parts of the city’s arts and culture community under one roof as a “creative hub”. It’s also predicated on a belief that the arts and culture sectors can be significant economic drivers.

According to Statistics Canada, Nova Scotia’s cultural industries (including visual arts, film, design and broadcasting) represented 2.3 per cent of the provincial economy in 2016, worth $874.1 million and 13,719 jobs. Nationally, culture accounted for 2.8 per cent of Canada’s GDP in 2016, for a total of $53.8 billion. In Ontario, culture made up 3.5 per cent of GDP.

“In Nova Scotia we’re only scratching the surface,” says Marc Almon, a film and TV producer and one of the Link’s four co-founders. “We really have an opportunity here to grow the sector, to make our province a better place to live, but also to create jobs and to bring investment into the province.”

Founded in 1964 to commemorate the 1864 Charlottetown Conference, Confederation Centre of the Arts in Charlottetown, P.E.I. celebrates the origins and evolution of Canada through its heritage and the arts. Attracting 300,000 visitors a year, it’s also a strong economic performer. Each year, the Charlottetown Festival provides over $28 million in spinoff economic activity and 403 jobs. Pictured here Anne of Green Gables—The MusicalTM. (Photo courtesy of Confederation Centre of the Arts)

Halifax’s Neptune Theatre contributes $7.37 million in direct spending annually to the local economy. It engages more than 200 theatre professionals, employs 66 part-time and 22 full-time staff, and generates approximately $5.5 million in local wages and salaries. Shown here: their 2018 production of Cinderella. Pictured: Samantha Walkes. (Photo credit Stoo Metz)

Culture is nearly a two-billion-dollar industry in Atlantic Canada, employing tens of thousands of people. Some arts and culture organizations are attempting to better illustrate their economic contributions within that larger whole, to show that their work generates both artistic and economic benefit.

The Canadian Media Producers Association, for instance, has commissioned economic impact assessments for some notable Canadian film and TV productions, many of them filmed on the East Coast.

Take, for example, Frontier, a Netflix series starring Jason Momoa as an outlaw trapper attempting to break the Hudson’s Bay Company’s monopoly on the fur trade. According to the CMPA assessment, the show—which is produced primarily in Newfoundland and Labrador—has contributed $82.1 million to the national economy and created 888 jobs. The show’s first season benefited 621 Canadian businesses—340 of them in St. John’s.

Such productions require caterers, a fleet of rental vehicles, construction supplies, accommodations and so on. In the case of Frontier, snowmobiles were needed for shooting in Corner Brook. Rugged Edge, a local outdoor sporting and tour business, provided rentals and assisted in scouting shooting locations. The company later reported that the tourism side of its business jumped by 25 per cent thanks to Frontier.

“The production industry is unique in that it’s like any industry—energy, drilling, farming—it creates jobs and drives GDP and economic growth. But it also has cultural benefits as well,” says Andrew Addison, the CMPA’s vice-president of communications and marketing.

“We want people to understand—especially policy makers, governments—that this is a viable industry and in many ways this is a future-proof industry,” he added. “It’s something that is only growing in Canada and it’s unlikely that robots or AI are going to take over. These are industries that require high-skilled jobs. They pay well and they’re going to continue to do so into the future.”

Republic of Doyle, which aired on CBC TV for six seasons, focused on a fictional private investigator in St. John’s. The CMPA’s assessment says the show produced 1,338 full-time jobs and pumped $105 million into the Newfoundland and Labrador economy, which was equivalent to the province’s aquaculture industry in 2013.

“It is quite a figure. It’s very, very surprising,” says Rob Blackie, whose company, Take the Shot Productions, created and produced Republic of Doyle and currently produces Frontier, which Blackie created with his brother, Peter. Take the Shot Productions is owned by six partners, including the Blackie brothers and Republic of Doyle star Allan Hawco. The company is currently developing a new project, to launch later this year, which would again be filmed primarily in Newfoundland and Labrador.

Republic of Doyle was available to viewers in more than 90 countries and was seen, particularly by Hawco, as a love letter to St. John’s. “We worked hard to keep in mind that this would be, in a lot of cases, people’s first impression of St. John’s,” Blackie said.

During production of the show’s fifth season, a woman with a thick Scottish accent walked up to the set in St. John’s. She’d come to Newfoundland to see where the show was made. “We thought it was novel and funny so we invited her to the monitors and she sat with Hawco at the monitors for the afternoon,” Blackie recalled in an interview. “And that happened more than once.”

Blackie notes that Frontier’s presence on Netflix means there’s potential for tens of millions of people—in over 190 countries—to be captivated by Newfoundland and Labrador’s scenery.

“It’s pretty common that in the course of one day you’ll see tweets in 15 different languages about Frontier,” he said. “So the ability for these types of projects to reach the world and export the images of the place where they’re made, or the culture of the place where you’re made, is quite surprising and quite exciting.”

Frontier co-creators (left and right) Rob Blackie and Peter Blackie with cast member Jamie Sives (centre). Photos submitted by Take the Shot Productions

Of all its cultural industries, Atlantic Canada is probably best known for its musical exports. Listing successful East Coast musicians is easy. Finding numbers to illustrate the industry’s economic impact is more challenging.

According to a report commissioned by the East Coast Music Association, the P.E.I. music sector supported over 800 artists and generated $23.9 million in economic impact in 2015. In New Brunswick, the figures were $65.2-million and nearly 700 artists. Figures for Newfoundland and Labrador were incomplete while figures for Nova Scotia were unavailable.
Numbers are also hard to come by for book publishing in the region, but that shouldn’t overshadow the industry’s impact, says Jim Lorimer, the owner of Formac Publishing and a board member of the Atlantic Publishers Marketing Association.

“Books, in the big scheme of things—dollar-wise and employment-wise—aren’t a huge factor, but they’re a very big factor in terms of visibility and awareness and presence and identity,” he said, pointing to Newfoundland and Labrador fiction as an example, with authors such as Lisa Moore.

“The diversity of life, the diversity of cultures, the diversity of people—that’s what books deliver,” Lorimer said. “To get those books into the hands of local people is really important. But it’s also really valuable to have people across Canada and internationally discover us through our books—through our writers.”

Nimbus, the region’s biggest publisher, has in recent years promoted its books and authors at huge book fairs in New York City, Frankfurt and Bologna. Nimbus, based in Halifax, has been aided in those efforts by the provincial government’s $2-million Creative Industries Fund, which is intended to help businesses in creative sectors expand into new markets and launch new projects.

In 2016, Nova Scotia publishers’ sales totalled $3.5 million. Across Atlantic Canada, sales were estimated at $6 million, with 50 full-time jobs. “But you don’t make the case for book publishing based on 50 jobs,” Lorimer said. “Cultural impact is why book publishing gets the attention.”

Port Aux Basques, N.L. native Brad LeRiche (signed with Toronto indie label Big Story Entertainment) is relatively unknown in his home province but is increasingly popular in the U.K. and Europe. Germany, which he’ll be touring this year, is his number one listening country. (Photo courtesy of Big Story Entertainment)


Back in downtown Halifax, Marc Almon and his fellow founders are hopeful the Link will be open by early spring 2020.

The project is well funded, having secured a combined $13 million from the city of Halifax, the provincial and federal governments, and George Armoyan’s Armco Capital, the owner of the building.

Last year, the Link founders issued a request for expressions of interest. Forty groups responded, seeking space in the Link. “There was so much interest that we’ve run out of space. We may be trying to go after more spaces in the building,” Almon said.
He says the demand is not surprising considering the lack of adequate space for arts groups in the city.

“Any thriving city in the 21st century has to have a thriving arts scene. Everyone recognizes that now,” he said. “So if the city and the province don’t invest in these kind of facilities where creatives can come together and collaborate and learn from each other and innovate together, the city and the province are really missing an opportunity.”
And it’s as much a money issue as it is an issue of cultural importance. “We’re leaving money on the table,” Almon said. “There’s economic activity that’s not happening because we’re not investing in our cultural facilities.”

Halifax’s old World Trade and Convention Centre in being repurposed into The Link Arts Centre: 84,000 sq. ft. creative space including a 1,700-person performance hall, TV and virtual reality production space, two dance studios and a 160-seat cinema. (Photo submitted by Marc Almon)

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