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Les Parsons, CEO of the Charlottetown Harbour Authority, is retiring

Les Parsons, CEO of the Charlottetown Harbour Authority, is retiring on April 13. TERRENCE MCEACHERN
Les Parsons, CEO of the Charlottetown Harbour Authority, is retiring on April 13. TERRENCE MCEACHERN - The Guardian

The cruise ship season may be the “sexy” part of the Charlottetown waterfront, but Les Parsons, CEO of the Charlottetown Harbour Authority Inc. and Port Charlottetown, wants people to remember that petroleum and gravel shipments are also important to the Island economy.

“Where would we be without the diesel to fuel the farm tractors and trucks?”, asks Parsons. Even so, the cruise industry is the largest area of growth since Parsons took over, he says. In 2018, the authority is projecting 115,000 passenger visits – a 28 per cent increase from 2017 – and 94 scheduled cruise ship visits. Parsons remembers when 30 cruise visits was good business and 60 cruise visits was great business. 

Parsons is retiring on April 13 after 11 years with the authority. Before that, he spent 20 years with the Charlottetown Area Development Corporation as a manager and general manager in economic development. It’s an interesting career for the 63-year-old Montreal native, especially when you consider that he started out as a public health inspector on the Island.  Parsons says there may be an opportunity for contract work with the authority once he’s officially retired. But for now, he’s looking forward to moving on from being “the boss.”

Parsons sat down with The Guardian this week to talk about his career and how the Charlottetown harbour has grown over the years.

Q: What is the mandate or role of the Charlottetown Harbour Authority?

A: The role of the harbour authority is really to operate the port of Charlottetown. The mainstays of business are petroleum, gravel and cruise ships, not necessarily in any order of importance, and to look after those. But doing so is to try and be proactive. Because if you sustain a major incident, like someone ran into your wharf, that would be a disaster here. It would be a disaster financially. It would be quite an insurance claim. And, it’s an expensive repair job. People who own buildings, their repairs can be $1,000 or $10,000. Down here, in the blink of an eye, it’s $100,000, which can turn into a half-a-million. So, you have to be prudent and cautions about it all. And, I don’t think that’s appreciated as much by people. This is a pretty significant asset. Because if you think about it, what if there was no wharf to pull up to with petroleum. That’s got to be trucked in now. It’s more expensive. What about gravel? You could live without a cruise ship, but it’s having an impact on the economy. We argue it’s an infrastructure project that has an immediate return from the public investment that’s been made. 

Q: How have things changed with the port and the Charlottetown Harbour Authority since you joined in 2007?

A: I think the biggest change is the transition away from a government wharf (in 2005) and the look and feel, the typical fencing and so on that you see around government compounds. We’ve really tried to soften it. And, that’s probably been the biggest change along with getting recognition that you’re not government, we’re not Transport Canada anymore.  We’re a not-for-profit that tries to sustain itself, like the Charlottetown Airport Authority. The difference is we own our property where I believe they lease theirs. That’s a big distinction. And then people think, well, you get a bunch of money from the (federal government) to operate the wharf. Yeah, but to be sustainable you have to monitor what you do and how you spend it. A lot of people still think, even some of the users of the wharf – they treat you like government but you’re not. You’re trying to run it like a business. We’ve tried to soften (the appearance). But you have to keep a balance between maintaining your security, which is required by the federal government, particularly with cruise ships, and then try to invite the public in. We’ve almost split this in two halves – the public side and the industrial side. It’s still a port that imports gravel and petroleum products. 

Q: What was the city and the waterfront area like when you started out with the CADC and then the harbour authority compared to today?

A: I reflect on that. It’s a 30 plus year history. The waterfront has really evolved. People way back when wouldn’t come down here because it was abandoned, industrial (and) worn down. CADC, before my time, built Harbourside. Peakes Wharf or Peakes Quay was done next. It was an old dredge facility that was abandoned and having fires. Confederation Landing Park was an old (Texaco) tank farm. Queen Street from the bridge has really gone up. And, all of this was predicated on if you can’t get the locals down to use your waterfront, the tourists aren’t going to use it. That was the simple philosophy. Rather than be judged by process, it was being judged by results. That’s been the motivation for years. 

Q: How did you go from someone working as a public health inspector for the province to a career in economic development?

A: I saw a job ad in the paper for a manager of development, a new position with CADC. I think there was over 60 people and I was the successful applicant. As they say, the rest is history. I sort of cut my teeth building the Pownal Parkade and built a couple of parking garages. I think people who know me would say you’re really motivated by results. Yeah, I’m not big into process. I respect it. But, at the end of the day, let’s go and do something. Otherwise, I’m pretty bored. The business is, I wouldn’t say easy to learn, but you can learn it quick. The balance is trying to continue to be proactive and develop at the same time. Never stand still. If you do, you get complacent ... It’s the results that make it. And, that’s what the public knows. It’s not me. It’s not anybody else. It’s what did you achieve. I got a lot done. A lot more to do. You just reach that point in your career where you say ‘maybe it’s best to turn the reins over to somebody else.’ Forty-two years of working, that’s a pretty good career. 

terrence.mceachern@theguardian.pe.ca

Twitter.com/Terry_mcn

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