The developer

Ramia isn’t talking about not talking about what you might have assumed: his controversial $500-million, one-million-square-foot Nova Centre convention-centre-office-towers-high-end-residencesand-luxury-hotel project smack in the heart of downtown Halifax.

That massive development, which is currently simultaneously in the pre-excavation, archaeological-research-impactassessment and design-public-consultation phases, has come under fire from all sorts of critics for all sorts of reasons.

The initial proposal, for example, was criticized for potentially blocking iconic views of the harbour from Citadel Hill and — at the same time — for shoehorning the convention facility into an underground bunker that might discourage potential convention goers from seeking out the city’s downtown delights.

Perhaps more significantly, many asked why, at a time when convention centres across North America are struggling to cope with too many competitors and too few conventioneers, Halifax should be building yet another one at a cost to already over-burdened taxpayers of $164.2 million.

I will confess I’d asked that last question myself (as well as the one about the harbour views) in a few newspaper columns.

If Joe Ramia knows about that, he gives no hint of it this afternoon. He is as unfailingly polite and easy with me as he is with the half dozen callers whose pressing business he must attend to while we talk. “Joe’s always on the phone,” the receptionist had told me with a smile when I arrived for our interview. “He’ll just be a few more minutes.”

Ramia hadn’t wanted to be interviewed, especially after I explained I wanted to talk about him as a person. “I’m not a public person,” he demurred. “I’m not interested in being in the news.” Too late. It had taken a couple of phone calls — and the veiled threat that my editor was expecting a story so I would have to write it, regardless of whether he agreed to talk with me — to finally arrange this meeting.

“So what is it that you want to know?” he begins with a welcoming but wary smile. Everything.

Joseph Ramia was born in Diman, Lebanon, in 1957, a middle son — “the fourth from the top,” as he describes it — in a family of six boys.

Diman, a small, poor Maronite Catholic village in a mountainous region of northern Lebanon 100 km from Beirut, has deep and powerful links to Halifax.

In 1894, the first migrant from Diman — a man named Abraham Arab — landed in Nova Scotia. “He was looking for ‘America, the land of opportunity,’” Ramia explains. “Halifax was just where he landed.” But Abraham did well enough in his new city that he not only stayed but he was soon followed by another Dimanese, and then another, and another. Today, 700 Haligonians can trace their roots back to Diman.

But the Diman Lebanese community is more important and influential, not to forget entrepreneurial, than numbers alone can explain.

If you “want to get a foot in the door in Halifax’s real estate development industry,” suggested the Halifax Herald in a story last year, your best bet might be to “wangle an invite to the Lebanese Independence Day bash… at the Diman Lebanese Centre.”

Many of modern Halifax’s most important and successful developers — including Wadih Fares, Atlantic Business Magazine’s CEO of the Year in 2011, his cousin Francis, Danny Chedrawe, the Metledge family, Youssef Ghosn, Solomon Ghosn and, of course, Joe Ramia — are members in good standing of the Halifax chapter of the Diman diaspora.

The Ramias arrived in 1966 when Joe was nine. He spoke no English. His father, who’d been in the restaurant business in Lebanon, operated a lunch counter called the Green Parrot in north end Halifax. It was a family affair. Everyone, including Joe, had to pitch in. Peeling carrots and potatoes when he came home from school, cleaning up after. The first restaurant was successful enough that his father opened another one, and then another. In high school, Joe himself branched out, working weekends at Bailey’s, a local furniture store, and absorbing the lessons of that business as well.

By the time Ramia finished university (he studied commerce at Dalhousie) he was ready to open his own first furniture store, World Wide Furniture, with his brother Tony.

Family, in fact, is a recurring Ramia business theme. Today, Ramia says, he and his five brothers are all in business together. But they are all also on their own. “No one understands,” he doesn’t quite explain. “Each of us is on our own, responsible for our own business, but we are also together in business. When you’re not motivated just by money, you see opportunity differently…” When I look puzzled, he adds simply: “It works.”

It seems to. There are now two World Wide Furniture locations, a more upscale Gallery 1 furniture store in Dartmouth and a Halifax outlet of The Brick, the national home furnishings, appliances, electronics and mattresses chain — all owned by combinations of the Ramia family.

Partly as a result of that retail success, Ramia branched out in the late 1980s into commercial real estate. His most significant project prior to the convention centre was to transform the Bayers Road Shopping Centre — Halifax’s first-ever, 50-plus-year-old strip mall — from what had become a decaying retail wasteland into what is now a thriving mixed use service centre for business and government.

Ramia understood that the emergence of the super-sized big box stores in new “driving” malls like nearby Bayers Lake spelled the death knell for suburban-style malls like Bayers Road. He bought it anyway. “I looked at the location” — on the edge of the peninsula, close to a major highway, with acres of free parking — ”and saw an opportunity.” When he acquired it, the 400,000 square-foot mall was 75 per cent vacant. Today, he says proudly, “we have 700,000 square feet of space and the vacancy rate is five per cent.”

Nova Centre offers a similar example of seeing opportunity where others saw only problems. Though there hadn’t been a major new commercial development in downtown Halifax in more than a decade — a reality that has been blamed on everything from too much municipal red tape to the state of the global economy — Joe and his brother George quietly began assembling property there. “Downtown is the heart of a city,”

Ramia says simply. “I believed there was going to be a turnaround.” According to the online site OpenFile, the Ramia brothers now own 125,000 square feet of prime downtown real estate valued at close to $31 million — including, of course, the two-block chunk of premium property on which Nova Centre is to be built.

In 2002, they’d bid on the first block (the then home of the Halifax Chronicle Herald newspaper) but lost out to local cable TV czar Charles Keating. After Keating died in 2005, Ramia recalls, “the family contacted us to say the property was available” for $15 million. By 2007, they had a deal. The next year, they acquired the adjacent Midtown Tavern property for $1.5 million and began trying to figure out what to do with the puzzle pieces.

The initial plan didn’t include a convention centre. It was only after the city and province asked developers for expressions of interest in building a new convention centre in March 2008 that Ramia made that part of his own Option A.

If he’d known then that it would take more than four years of public debate, not to mention dithering over financing by various levels of government, not to forget global economic tremors that shook his own leasing landscape just to get to the point where the first shovels could begin tentatively poking and prodding the ground (projects in thecity’s historic downtown must include preconstruction archaeological digs to look for artifacts worth saving) Joe Ramia would have … well, he says blandly, he would have “weighed our options.”

Although he admits the controversy and criticism “takes a toll,” he prefers to look forward rather than backward.

In July, perhaps to make that point, Ramia stepped out of his I’m-a-private-person-whojust-wants-to-be-allowed-to-do-my-work persona long enough to stage a very public celebratory announcement bash at the Neptune Theatre, just a block away from the soon-to-be Nova Centre. “We are here today,” a beaming Ramia told an invited audience of photo-op-seeking politicians and local business leaders, “to announce the start of the Nova Centre and the signing of its first tenant” — the new convention centre.

After the archaeological assessment and a fall spent in public consultations over the project’s look and feel, Ramia is expected to announce the final design in December. By the spring of 2013, major excavation is expected to begin with construction mostly completed by the end of 2015.

And then? Ramia isn’t saying, though he acknowledges: “We’re always looking for opportunities.”

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