Category Archives: Municipal Affairs

A tale of two urban legends

 

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In his illuminating piece on American cities and why they work, (in the current edition of the Atlantic) national correspondent James Fallows observes a renaissance, of sorts, in the ranks of strong mayors.

This, in turn, leads him to a rather shocking conclusion, given the political distemper that plagues other levels of government in the United States: “Once you look away from the national level, the American style of self-government can seem practical-minded, nonideological, future-oriented, and capable of compromise. These are of course the very traits we seem to have lost in our national politics.”

He then names some of the country’s more successful, recent big-city mayors, such as New York’s Michael Bloomberg, Boston’s Tom Menino and Chicago’s Richard Daley who, “even with their excesses. . .have been. . .the people who could get things done, while presidents and legislators seem ever more pathetically hamstrung.”

Even the nation’s more modestly sized cities, he says, deserve praise, including Greenville, South Carolina, where noting its “walkable and gracious downtown is like mentioning that Seattle has good coffee,” and Burlington, Vermont, a community “so liberal that it elected a socialist mayor” who, nevertheless, “overrode resistance to clear the waterfront, bring back the downtown, and attract businesses.”

Reading this account of Mr. Fallows’ happy adventures along the main streets of his nation, I can’t help but feel a might bewildered. 

American cities aren’t supposed to be paragons of anything. In fact, they are supposed to be dystopian hell holes where elected officials are in the back pockets of organized criminals, the cops are on the take, and murder and mayhem lurks behind every street corner. 

Canadian cities, on the other hand, are supposed to be legendarily well-ordered, well-managed and. . .well. . .boring. Typically, its mayors are supposed to be either courtly older gentlemen or feisty older ladies whose affection for controversy begins and ends with zoning restrictions in exurban subdivision developments.

Well, aren’t they?

Rob Ford was in the news the other day. It appears that Toronto’s mayor was “visibly upset” after being barred from Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment’s board of directors’ lounge at the Air Canada Centre during a hockey game. At least, that’s how his companion described the chief magistrate on Saturday. 

“To the extent possible, yeah, they (security staff) asked me to keep him under control,” Toronto Councillor Frank Di Giorgio told the Globe and Mail. “That was one of things I hadn’t anticipated my having to do, let’s put it that way. I think if his older brother had been there, it would have been easier to control him. . .(He was) certainly visibly upset.”

Was he drunk? Was he high? Nope, hizzoner said, not this time. 

Sure, over the past year, he has admitted to smoking crack (after having lied about it) in a drunken stupor. Yes, police documents, unsealed last month, describe the a mobile phone video in which the mayor is “holding what appears to be a glass cylinder in one hand and a lighter in the othe . . .At one point Mayor Ford holds the glass cylinder to his mouth. Lights the lighter and applies the flame to the tip of the glass cylinder in a circular motion. After several seconds Mayor Ford appears to inhale the vapour which is produced, then exhale vapour.”

But last Saturday, he was as clean and sober as a Tibetan monk, even though, as the Toronto Star reported yesterday, the incident at the hockey game “marked the fourth occasion in the past three months that the mayor has been filmed acting erratic in public. In January, a video made at a fast-food restaurant showed him slurring and making disparaging remarks about the chief of police. In early February, he was seen drinking and speaking ‘gibberish’ at a British Columbia pub. And on St. Patrick’s Day, Ford was again taped stumbling and swearing outside city hall.”

For all that, Mayor Ford is just an average guy. At least that’s what he told the profile writer from Esquire last month: “I’m very humble. Some people call it shy. I am who I am. I love my football, and I love my family, and that’s pretty well it.”

Should Mr. Fallows want to write a Canadian follow-up to his excellent essay on American mayors, Mr. Ford is almost certainly available to oblige with an interview. 

Just as soon as he nails down that reality show.

 After all, for the mayor of Canada’s largest city, priorities are everything.

 

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How to take ‘yes’ for an answer in politics

 

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Metro Moncton richly deserves its pride of place as one North America’s most attractive municipalities for businesses. In fact, according to a new KPMG report, pound-for pound, the Hub City may be the most free-enterprising on the continent.

As the 2014 Competitive Alternatives report states, “The cost leaders in the New England/Atlantic Canada region are the Atlantic Canada cities of Moncton,

Charlottetown, and Fredericton, all with costs nine percent or more below the US baseline. Costs are somewhat higher in Halifax, St. John’s and Bangor, while Manchester (New Hampshire) and Burlington (Vermont) have the highest 

business costs among the smaller cities in this region.”

Of course, money isn’t everything. Foresight also counts for a lot in the fortunes of any community. That’s why the long-running ‘will-we-won’t-we-push-me-pull-you’ saga of a rumored, though not actually realized, downtown centre has been such a frustrating anomaly in the city’s urban oeuvre – a rare instance in which Moncton has sacrificed its youthful swagger for a geriatric shuffle.

In fact, an unmistakable fustiness permeates the Request for Proposal (RFP) that City Hall has sent to prospective builders, as if councillors and staff are tripping over their own feet in their effort not to get ahead of themselves lest they (gasp!) actually hit the ground running on this thing.

The real problem has always been, and remains, existential. What do we – and those we elect – actually want a downtown centre to do? Opinions clearly vary and to the extent that they do, the actual character of the urban core hovers just out of view, beyond our grasp. 

Shall we embrace, as the RFP stipulates, the “Moncton Multi-Use Sport and Entertainment Facility” or the “Moncton Downtown Centre” or, simply, “Downtown Centre”? What does “Multi-Use” mean?

We know one thing: It means being flexible enough to accommodate two sports teams, which might not otherwise prosper here 

“The Downtown Centre will be the home of the Moncton Wildcats, and the Moncton Miracles,” the RFP says. “The Moncton Wildcats. . .will be a major tenant at the Downtown Centre. All of the Moncton Wildcats’ hockey and business operations will be located in the Downtown Centre, and the Moncton Wildcats will play approximately

thirty-four (34) home games per season, as well as any playoff games at the Downtown Centre. . .The Moncton Miracles basketball league franchise is a charter member of the 

National Basketball League of Canada (Atlantic Division), and plays twenty (20) 

regular home games per season.”

But, in calling for a mere 7,500-seat capacity (hardly better than city’s 40-year-old coliseum, whose fate as a refurbished trade centre and show location is linked to the downtown centre’s progress), officials are inadvertently raising uncomfortable questions about the broader utility of such a facility, particularly as an entertainment mooring for the downtown.

Still, the RFP insists, “The Moncton Downtown Centre development project is a major local project which has been part the City’s development and planning vision for many years. This Project has a high degree of visibility, as the Downtown Centre will be one of the most important new buildings located in the City, and the Province, for many years to come.”

Really? How so? 

“The Downtown Centre must encourage downtown residential development: 

The City envisions the Downtown Centre as a catalyst for downtown development, giving more people a reason to live downtown,” the RFP continues. “Specifically, the 

City is seeking design proposals that facilitate the City’s objective of resulting 

in more people living downtown, higher density forms of development, and a 

variety of housing options, including a mix of unit types and tenures (i.e. rental 

vs. ownership).”

City officials are not wrong to appreciate the catalytic effects of architecture and design on housing, retail and hospitality development in the downtown. But to properly re-imagine a busy, densely populated, and diverse urban core, we must articulate a fuller cultural agenda, and in greater detail, than we have for its new anchoring edifice.

Bold, aggressive strategies with no guarantee of success are what made Moncton one of the world’s recognized “smart cities” at a competition in New York a few years ago. That this city boasts the international airport it does owes everything to its habit of making a productive nuisance of itself at all levels of government.

Nothing less is called for today, and there’s no reason to start taking ‘no’ for an answer to the questions the future poses. 

 

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Put Moncton’s future in the hands of the willing

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It’s fast becoming apparent that if the community of interests that comprises Greater Moncton intends to erect any of its many imagined monuments to civic pride and progress (including, but not limited to, a downtown events centre) it must turn to private enterprises, voluntary organizations and institutions to get the job done.

Governments, it seems, are otherwise occupied counting their dwindling supply of loonies and obfuscating the public debate with impenetrable statements like the one Moncton City Manager Jacques Dube issued the other day to a Moncton Times & Transcript reporter on the subject of concert dates for Magnetic Hill:

“(City) staff need a couple more weeks to prepare final recommendations in relation to potential changes to concert and event governance, organizational structures and any new financial parameters regarding future concerts and events at Magnetic Hill, the Stadium, the Coliseum and other city venues.”

From this, it seems entirely reasonably to conclude that bafflegab-production has usurped actual event-prospecting over at Casa del Mudtown.

The good news is that just as some city officials and elected representatives (not all, to be sure and to be fair) take their time figuring out how they feel about our live sports and entertainment scene – i.e., whether or not a new events centre should support a full-blown, downtown renaissance, or just itself; whether or not Magnetic Hill will ever again attract the likes of the Rolling Stones, and 75,000 fans, for one weekend of gloriously bacchanalian spending – some of us, at least, are willing to pick up the ball.

I’m not especially fond of summitry in any of its guises. Too often, events involving a few hundred people, representing a few hundred different points of view, convened to “get things done” produce precisely the opposite effect. But the final report of the recent “Greater Moncton – One Region, One Vision 2014” conference suggests that this gathering was the happy exception to my rule.

Most impressive, perhaps, was the degree of unanimity it achieved on concrete issues that affect all sectors and industry segments in the metropolitan area.

All participants agreed, for example, that the tri-city area must draw more talent, more immigrants, into its orbit. “Our economic, cultural and social advancement will be strengthened through attracting more newcomers to the community,” the report observed. “Even the professional sectors are having a harder time attracting workers compared to the recent past.”

Though summiteers complained about the federal government’s notoriously ineffectual temporary foreign worker program, some suggested solutions they, themselves, could offer, such as “strengthening the linkages between industries and educational institutions; and raising the profile of industry among young people.”

Other priorities included engendering greater “industry-specific collaboration” to address joint problems; nurturing entrepreneurship and “strengthening the start-up ecosystem (involving) access to capital, mentorship and guidance and physical incubation spaces; and “fostering Greater Moncton’s role as a regional services centre” especially for the nascent natural gas industry in the province.

Of course, we know a community is largely on the right course when its members – ably articulating its advantages as well as its challenges – find that its strengths and weakness are actually two signs of the same municipal coin.

By summit consensus, for example, one of Greater Moncton’s top 10 competitive boons is its “entrepreneurial spirit”. At the same time, one of its key drawbacks is the “lack of new entrepreneurs.”

These two facts, juxtaposed as they are in the same urban headspace, immediately suggest strategies for real progress – the obvious one being to leverage the experience of existing entrepreneurs to mentor, promote and provide new opportunities for promising, youthful startups.

This is the type of active, collaborative, inventive, and mindful approach to solving problems and, frankly, just getting things done that this metropolitan area needs now, before it grows inured to habitual underachievement in governments at all levels.

So says the Summit report: “The success of Greater Moncton over the past 25 years has been in large part due to cooperation and collaboration. The 2014 Greater Moncton Economic Summit was the start of a process meant to rekindle this spirit of collaboration.”

We may only hope that from Moncton City Hall’s perspective that process comes just in the nick of time.

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Get the comedy out of city hall and onto a proper stage

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How many times shall we pose the existential query that pertains to Moncton’s, as yet entirely fictional, downtown events centre? How much patience must we yet muster before we finally obtain an answer?

To build or under-build: that is the question:

Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer

The slings and arrows of outrageous Council,

Or to take arms against a sea of dragging feet,

And by opposing trip them?

Naturally, I extend my deepest apology to Bill Shakespeare’s phantom, both for mangling one of his finest soliloquies and for inappropriately inserting it into the wrong fantastical genre.

After all, Hamlet is high tragedy, whereas the play underway at Moncton City Hall seems more, in form and function, an Italian farce, if by this we accept the dictionary’s definition of a “light, dramatic composition that uses highly improbable situations, stereotyped characters and broad humour.”

According to The Moncton Times & Transcript’s Cole Hobson, reporting yesterday, “a preliminary copy of the potential RFP details that the centre must have a minimum of 7,500 permanent seats, which is significantly lower than figures that have been discussed in the past and not much larger than the current fixed-seat capacity of the Moncton Coliseum, which sits around 6,500.”

So irked by this were the organ’s sturdy, fearless opinionators that the lead editorial in yesterday’s T&T concluded in righteous exasperation, “A new centre, based on the original concept of seating in the 10,000 to 12,000 range with an ability to be expanded in the future, would cost $100 million or more, but would attract a far greater variety of events and thus generate the kind of entrepreneurial interest that would lead to at least another $100 million in related development.”

As to the kicker, “If this council can’t embrace the future, it might as well cling to the past,” I heartily concur. And I don’t even come from here.

In fact, I come from a couple of places where this sort of nonsense happens all the time, where institutional hemming and hawing and corrosive uncertainties among the penny-wise and pound-foolish virtually paralyze municipal chambers. Even when they don’t, the decisions are invariably absurd and counterproductive. (Halifax City Council’s endless debates over which view of the harbour should take precedence over the construction of which mixed-use high rise are legendary).

Which brings us back around to the little matter of seven-thousand-five-hundred seats. I’ve said it once; I’ll say it again: That’s not enough to do the job of a proper multi-use events centre. So, then, why bother?

A proper multi-use events centre draws and hosts gigs from every possible quarter of the world’s $4-trillion entertainment-and-sports-industrial complex. That means its capacity must meet a specific threshold to attract a wider variety of performances and events. Below this mark of 10K-15K seats, we’re stuck with, at best, serving the status quo; at worst, losing business that was once ours to venues in places like Summerside (Sound familiar?)

On the other hand, if we do it right, according to a research report by Moncton-based Jupia Consultants, we can legitimately expect that a new centre will annually “attract between 317,000 and 396,000 people. . .generating between $12 and $15 million in spending.” In the process, it will “support retail, food service, accommodation and other services in the downtown,” where it “should also support residential growth.”

We know this, don’t we? We’ve been yakking about it for years. And for years, we’ve been chasing our tails in City Council like the bumbling protagonists of the 19th Century stage trifle, The Italian Straw Hat.

To his credit, Mayor George LeBlanc has been clear and consistent on the issue. In yesterday’s piece, he said that he “personally” believed in “something in the range of 9,000 seats, plus suites and club seats. . .which would bring the total capacity up to about 10,000 seats. . .I think at this stage of the game, we really need to be looking forward, not backward.”

Yes, we do, and before we come to the grinding realization that we, in this community, have lost interest in taking a bold, leading role in our own lives.

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It’s spring and “partitioning” is in the air

If Montreal becomes  a city state, can Toronto be far behind?

If Montreal becomes a city state, can Toronto be far behind?

In a sort of geopolitical shot-gun wedding officiated by the former Soviet KGB station chief and current oligarch-in-residence Vladimir Putin, Crimeans voted on Sunday to split from Ukraine and join the Russian Federation.

Amid the turrets and waving barrels of Kalashnikov-toting “military observers” Moscow and environs, the result was better than 95 per cent in favour, which drew howls of derision from Canada’s prime minister, Stephen Harper, whose own approval in this country rating has rarely tracked above 40 per cent.

“The so-called referendum. . . was conducted with Crimea under illegal military occupation,” he said in a statement. “Its results are a reflection of nothing more than Russian military control. Any solution to this crisis must respect the territorial integrity, sovereignty and independence of Ukraine as well as the constitution of Ukraine. Mr. Putin’s reckless and unilateral actions will lead only to Russia’s further economic and political isolation from the international community.”

That’s pretty tough talk coming from a head of state with virtually no navy of which to speak (Meanwhile, Russia, which has evinced great interest in Canada’s north polar territories, maintains a fleet of 210 warships and 70 submarines. . .just. . .you know. . .food for thought).

Still, Mr. Harper has a point. The Crimean vote bears all the outward signs of a well-organized sham – least among them, perhaps, is Johannes Hubner’s endorsement of it. 

The member of Austria’s reactionary Freedom Party told The Globe and Mail, “I would say this election doesn’t seem to be less legitimate than the elections in Ukraine before. We see no signs of intimidation, no signs of a breach of security. We have seen Cossacks and militias standing around polling stations, but no one interferes.”

No, there’d be no need; now would there?

Political leaders in Canada are far less adept at overt intimidation than their Russian counterparts. But, despite empirical evidence to the contrary, spring is nearly upon us and partitioning is in the air, even here in the torpid Great White North.

As if Quebec Premier Pauline Marois’ determination to yank the errant strand of separation that runs through her distinct society like a loose threat weren’t enough to try  a federalist’s patience, now comes word about some Montrealers’ plans for their fair metropolis, lately besieged by crumbling overpasses, trembling bureaucrats and overbearing mob bosses.

In a February 27 post, MTL Blog editor Michael Michael D’Alimonte, “a self-proclaimed nerd and genius (who) loves all things Whedon and Batman-related,” outlined “10 Reasons Why Montreal Should Become A City State”,  pointing out that “Montreal as a city state is not a lofty concept.”  

In fact, his research borrows heavily from some actual high-concept work done by Montreal consultant, lecturer and author Michel David, who heads the group, Reinvent Montreal. Its proposed charter, “Montreal City State: Canada’s Entrepreneurial Hub” states that “the island of Montreal and the rest of Quebec (ROQ) are two distinct societies on three fundamental dimensions:  

“Society. . .ROQ is homogeneous; Montral is multi-ethnic, 51 per cent non-French, 80 different ethnic groups. 

“Culture. . .ROQ is local, the group comes first; Montreal is cosmopolitan, primacy is to the individual. 

“Economy. . .ROQ is driven by natural resources and agriculture; Montreal, like most major cities, is driven by networks of commerce and knowledge.  

“Seventy percent of Montrealers and Quebecers agree that Montreal is different from the rest of the province in the way business is conducted, its interaction with the provincial government, the priorities it has as a region and the way it governs itself as a city.”

Apparently, these differences – and the fact that the Province of Quebec is mired in debt and keeps making dumb decisions about language rights and religious freedoms  – are deep enough to justify Montreal kicking it Singapore style.

“Around the world,” the charter insists, “there are numerous examples of cities/regions that have the status and the responsibilities to create high performance economic centers; for example: Shanghai, Hong Kong, Singapore, Berlin, Hamburg, New York.”

It’s enough to make you wonder: If he were mayor of Montreal, what would dear, old Vlad do? 

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Municipal miracle 2.0 *

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The price of prosperity is, as Ben Champoux might say, eternal vigilance; which tends to explain why the trim, energetic chief executive officer of Enterprise Greater Moncton sits in his office in the city’s downtown core pouring over audio files from a recent blue-chip conference on the municipal region’s commercial future.

There is much to review: Twenty-eight hours of taped discussions among participants to 14 sectoral plenaries. “There is no way we are going to wait another 20 years to do an economic summit,” he says without a hint of weariness. “In the meantime, we need to know what specific initiatives will help us keep the momentum going right now. How do we keep the channels of communication open?”

It’s fair to say that keeping the channels of communications open was the overriding preoccupation of the 2014 Greater Moncton Economic Summit, themed “One Region, one Vision”, which convened at the warm oasis of the city’s Delta Beausejour Hotel on the frigid night, morning and afternoon of January 16 and 17. There, 340 heavy hitters, representing all socio-economic segments of the Moncton-Riverview-Dieppe tri-city area (population: 138,000) gathered to ponder their fortunes together if not, explicitly, to avert catastrophe.

“The whole point of the summit was to be proactive,” Champoux explains. “Greater Moncton has been on the upswing for many years. But we just can’t rest on our laurels. In this sense, alone, we were just blown away by the community. We had leaders from every walk of life – business, politics, education, culture – demonstrating the maturity and wisdom to say, ‘Let’s not wait until we are against the wall; let’s come together and celebrate our success and, most importantly, let’s redefine who we are today where we want to be 20-25 years from now and figure out how are we going to get there.’”

Aldéa Landry concurs. She’s a Moncton lawyer and businesswoman and a former cabinet minister and deputy premier of New Brunswick in the Liberal government of Frank McKenna. A summit participant and presenter, she thinks the timing of the event was sublimely strategic. “Change happens so fast, if you don’t move forward, you are vulnerable,” she says. “I think that the more we do this sort of thing in a serene manner, the better able we are to avoid a crisis. We are further ahead. If you wait for a crisis, you have to do a lot of crisis management. We don’t have to do that now. We can build with fewer day-to-day pressures to make things happen right away.”

Still, Greater Moncton had to learn its lesson the hard way.

The first summit of this kind convened 25 years ago when the extended municipality faced the sort of wretched economic woes that now routinely topple mid-sized cities across North America. As Moncton Mayor George LeBlanc outlined in his message to the “One Region, One Vision” conference, “In the late 80s, Moncton was at a crossroads. Significant employers and industry had left town, jobs were lost and windows were boarded up.”

Specifically, in the 1980s, Greater Moncton lost its raison d’etre when the Canadian National Railway shuttered its locomotive shops, effectively ending more than a century of steady economic growth. The 1989 summit, called as an emergency meeting to literally re-conjure the local economy, began the arduous process of establishing new commercial edifices and diversifying the labour market. A followup convention five years later sealed the deal – a wholly made-in-Moncton series of solutions that relied, crucially, on private-sector engagement.

As LeBlanc writes, “Greater Moncton came together and reinvented itself. That effort began what became known as the Moncton Miracle – the resurgence of a community that became a leader in economic development and growth.”

It’s still a leader in New Brunswick. As the province struggles overall with mounting annual deficits, longterm debt, stubbornly high unemployment in rural areas, and a virtually stagnant GDP, Greater Moncton is the one indisputably bright spot.

With a 9.7 per cent growth rate between 2006 and 2011, the City of Moncton is the fifth-fastest growing Census Metropolitan Area in the country. Its annual unemployment rate is one of the lowest in the Atlantic region and substantially below the national average.

Over the past three decades, the population of Dieppe has more than quadrupled (up by more than 25 per cent since 2006, alone). Meanwhile, Riverview has enjoyed a 20 per cent hike in its population  since 1986.

Indeed, Moncton, Riverview and Dieppe display all the metrics of eminently livable, dynamic centers: Booming, yet still affordable, housing markets, comparatively low unemployment rates, comparatively high participation rates, robust retail sectors and plentiful recreational and cultural amenities.

For these reasons and others, a recurring theme at the “One Region, One Vision” Summit was securing Greater Moncton’s position as an economic engine not merely for the immediate urban region but for the entire province. Don Mills, chairman and chief executive officer of Corporate Research Associates and conference presenter, thinks the fit is perfect. During his lengthy address on the Atlantic economy and Greater Moncton’s role, he pointed enthusiastically to the city’s resiliency.

“Moncton should be the model for many, many communities across the region,” he says. “Too many are looking for someone else to solve their problems. They are always looking especially to the federal government or the provincial government instead of taking on the responsibility themselves. . .That’s what the Moncton example shows. . .Here is a community that has been prepared to deal with the issues and try to come up with its own solutions.”

None of which is to suggest that Greater Moncton doesn’t face challenges. Employment growth is beginning to slow, a reflection, to some extent, of systemically soft conditions in the province’s export sector. Other issues that arose during the summit’s working sessions included: A growing skills shortage for high-wage jobs; inadequate appreciation within the community of the competitive advantages of its bilingual workforce; and the perception of foot-dragging on plans to rejuvenate the downtown core with a multi-use events centre, a facility that Moncton economic development consultant David Campbell has estimated could annually attract between 317,000 and 396,000 people and generate between $12 and $15 million in spending.

For Ben Champoux and others behind the summit, knowing the challenges is just as important as appreciating the opportunities. “The work for Enterprise Greater Moncton starts today,” he says. “The summit really came from a wind of change in the community. There will be a report that summarizes the essence of the Summit. It’s about gathering all the information to see where we are, what we need to do and how we can proceed together.”

For now, at any rate, it’s back to work. After all, those audio files full of good ideas and brave, new notions won’t transcribe themselves.

* This piece originally appeared in Atlantic Business Magazine‘s March/April issue

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Jolting Moncton’s priorities to life

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The fact that Moncton city council even maintains a list of priorities to pursue in its effort to better the community it serves speaks volumes about the worthy preoccupation with thoughtful civic planning around here. After all, few municipalities of comparable size spend much energy crafting “to-dos” and even less time fulfilling them. 

Still, there is something broadly disappointing about an ersatz action plan (the existence of which came to light in the Moncton Times & Transcript last week) whose number one standard operating procedure is to “continue to foster a culture of fiscal responsibility.” Really? As opposed to what?

Had the vow been to spend money like this was our last day on Earth – to go into cosmic hock building a fleeting, terrestrial version of Paradise because the only debt collector is the Grim Reaper, himself, and he’s got bigger fish to fry – well. . .at least that would have been interesting. Irresponsible, but interesting.

What, exactly, is intriguing about a promise to keep our fiscal noses from running? Who and what is that supposed to inspire?

When I check my personal Ten Commandments, affixed via post-it note to my bathroom mirror, before my daily, morning ablutions, I do not see inscribed there, “Thou shalt not rob Peter to pay Paul. . .not today, anyway.”

Nowhere do I encounter admonitions to cut back on $4-a-cup cappuccinos or to switch to a cheaper, less talented hair dresser because, after all, a penny saved is a penny earned and that’s exactly what’s written on my calling card.

No, what I see staring back at me from my looking glass are phrases like “Go Big or Go Home!” and “Shock and Awe is a Way of Life!” and “Be Amazing!”

Okay, so maybe they’re not affixed to my bathroom mirror (who does that anyway?). But, over the years and with the help of boardofwisdom.com’s inspirational quotes page, I have made a small collection of various motivational squibs, none of which, I hasten to point out, has anything to do with maintaining a healthy bank account.

Here’s one: “Never tell me the sky’s the limit when there are footprints on the moon.” Here’s another: “I do it because I can, I can because I want to, I want to because you said I couldn’t.” And there’s this: “Everything is okay in the end, if it’s not ok then it’s not the end.”

Perhaps most disappointing is how far down on city council’s list “reinforcing Moncton’s position as a sports and entertainment hub” appears. It’s number 11, just below the commitment to “launch Magnetic Hill Zoo’s 5-year plan” and just above a rather amorphous declaration to “support and promote arts, culture and heritage/incent public art with an emphasis on the downtown.”

Other priorities, chronicled in order, include stimulating economic growth (2), fixing public transit (3), creating a Tourism Marketing Fund (4), promoting “business-friendly services and processes”, ie., cutting red tape (5), developing the downtown area (6), pursuing “environmental stewardship” (7), welcome immigrants (8), and “invest in parks and trails” (9). Way down at the bottom in 16th place is “promote affordable housing/assist in poverty reduction”, below the one about enhancing “democracy in our local government” (14), which one might persuasively argue should head the entire crop of promises and imprecations.

On the “capital projects” side of the ledger, the top priority is, again, tethered to cash flow – or, at least, the desperate fear of running short of the stuff, as implied by the wording, “reduce Moncton’s infrastructure deficit.” Building a “downtown multi-purpose sports and entertainment centre” is number two on that particular list.

And this is, of course, the problem with this sort of exercise. It’s both exhausting and dispiriting. Worse, it’s futile.

“Reinforcing Moncton’s position as a sports and entertainment hub” is exactly on par with “developing the downtown area” and vice versa. Anyone who demurs has evidently never spent any time on Main Street during one of these summer extravaganzas.

In fact, most, if not all, of Moncton’s priorities are horizontal, interconnected and self-reinforcing – as they should be in any healthy community.

Ranking them distorts an overarching municipal vision, which is just as injurious to thoughtful civic planning as is a self-imposed injunction to follow the money, above all else and come what may.

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If we build it, will more be in store?

If a city measures its civic ambitions by the plans it makes for its downtown areas, then is Moncton poised for a new age of urban renewal?

We can boost and boast till all the pigeons fly their concrete coops along Main Street, but we must admit that the business core – stretching west to Vaughan Harvey Boulevard, east to King Street, north to St. George and south to Assumption Boulevard – has not always reflected the broader community’s tough, entrepreneurial, sophisticated, technologically savvy, and culturally rich attitudes and endowments.

Too many store fronts remain shuttered, too many office spaces are begging for tenants, too many edifices exude that unpleasant aura of dissolution so familiar to urban planners the world over.

And that’s a problem because while other parts of the city can periodically languish without compromising the social and economic integrity of the whole, the downtown is the community’s commons. Its vibrancy electrifies the neighborhoods that surround it, just as its rot eventually spreads throughout the civic body.

Fortunately, we are in no immediate threat of contracting such municipal gangrene. A few years ago, Mayor George LeBlanc offered me a vigorous defense of Moncton’s progress. “Look at what has been happening in just the past five or 10 years,” he said. “In 1996, we had 8,000 people working in the downtown area. Today, we have 15,000. We’ve opened up a public Wi-Fi network, and we’ve seen quite a few high-tech companies doing big things locate in the downtown.”

He wasn’t wrong. In fact, progress is palpable today, even in the downtown, which plays host to thousands of businesses, bars, restaurants and cafes,18,000 office workers, and anywhere from 1,200 to 5,700 residents depending on how you fixes downtown “borders”.

Today, Moncton is a major Canadian customer contact and back office centre with a robust “near-shore” IT outsourcing industry. And it continues to leverage its success with a plan that calls for new partnerships with regional universities to deepen the region’s knowledge economy, diversify the IT economy, and actively promote tech-based entrepreneurship.

Still, a downtown is more than the sum of its moving parts. Like any good and growing garden, it requires constant attention and vigilance – even a little creative experimentation, from time to time.

As The Moncton Times & Transcript reported on Friday, the “proposed Downing Street restoration, a project in honour of Moncton’s 135th anniversary in 2015, is embracing four key themes – Downtown, Celebration, Art & Storytelling and Sustainability.”

The idea is to redevelop the dead-end street – between the Blue Cross complex and the McSweeney Block – that spills out into combined parking lots into an avenue down to the river. “This is an opportunity to explore every possibility,” Mr. LeBlanc said, referring to the plethora of planning options available to the city.

Some may question the value of the project on strictly economic grounds. Shouldn’t we spend our time and money of a downtown events centre? After all, we already expect that such a facility would draw 350,000 a year, generate about $14 million in spending and, in the words of economic development agency Jupia Consultants, “support retail, food service, accommodation and other services in the downtown,” where it “should also support residential growth.”

Meanwhile, another report has estimated that the construction phase, alone, would generate $340 million worth of “economic impacts” for New Brunswick and other parts of the country, as well as nearly $17 million in taxes for the provincial and federal governments. Moreover, it indicated, sales from ongoing operations could easily reach $9.5 million in 2015 (assuming, of course, the centre is open for business by then).

Compared with this, critics may query, what does a road to the river offer?

That, of course, is the wrong question.

The marvelous thing about investing in urban infrastructure is the multiplier effect. Almost any beautification, redevelopment or expansion project yields new opportunities for others.

In this respect, the Downing Street initiative and an events centre complement one another. Both will encourage people to get into the happy and productive habit of spending time (and money) in (and on) our core, of forging the common bonds of community that, in fact, attract and keep industries, entrepreneurs and skilled workers.

In our capacious suburban homes where we park our cars and RVs, we would do well to remember that our downtown areas are not only the manifestations of our ambitions; they are also the means to those ends.

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Spreading a little of Moncton’s famous mojo

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Hindsight makes geniuses of us all, which is one reason why the most astute economic development gurus are keen students of history.

For Greater Moncton last week, the past met the present and together they stared steadily, if not altogether fearlessly, into the future.

It’s nearly impossible to get 300 people to sit still in one room, let alone command their undivided attention, but there were times during the 2014 Greater Moncton Economic Summit when all eyes were fixed on the gantlet that history has thrown down.

That gantlet is nothing less than 25 years of sturdy growth in the Hub City regardless – and, at times in defiance – of weak economic conditions elsewhere in New Brunswick and Canada.

The challenge, as always, in the here and now, where and when we gather to consider our options, is in properly appreciating what the community has done right – not to replicate an old vision, but to help create a new one for different and, in some ways, tougher times.

Of course, ever since the financial meltdown of 2008 and subsequent recession cities and towns all over Canada – indeed, the world – have made routine naval gazing a part of their municipal roadshows.

But in my 30-plus years covering city halls and urban planning conferences, only in Moncton have I observed deliberate, indefatigably cheerful determination actually transform street scapes, sectors and even industries.

All of which is fortunate for those of us who live, work and play here. The city – nay, the entire province – is going to need such a patented brand of pluck.

“We’ve seen almost five years with no net employment growth in Nova Scotia, for example, and there’s a big difference too now between Newfoundland and Labrador, which is looking to a long and sustained period of large project activity and all the benefits that brings in terms of high income growth, high employment growth. The difference here in the Maritimes couldn’t be more stark.”

Those were Elizabeth Beale’s words in mid November. She’s the president of one of the region’s leading think tanks, the Atlantic Province’s Economic Council (APEC). Specifically, here’s what the organization predicted for the provinces:

“Newfoundland and Labrador is expected to have one of the fastest growth rates in Canada this year, at six per cent, due to increased oil production and capital investment.

“Prince Edward Island will see its economy expand by 1.1 per cent in 2013, due to a strong labour market. The forecast for 2014 calls for growth of 1.3 per cent, due partly to growth in the bioscience sector, a rebound in aerospace and defence, increased food processing and a decent tourism season.

“Nova Scotia sees flat employment and weak consumer spending in 2013, limiting GDP growth to about 0.8 per cent. In 2014, that is forecast to accelerate to about 2.0 per cent, boosted by a jump in natural gas output and increased investment in major projects.”

And what of New Brunswick, host province of the original “Moncton Miracle” – the retail, transportation, IT and entertainment capital of the central Maritimes?

Says APEC: “New Brunswick will have no economic growth in 2013 as a result of a weak labour market, the closure of the Xtrata mine in Bathurst and a lack of major projects. New Brunswick’s real GDP growth is forecast to expand 0.9 per cent in 2014.

However, that is expected to slow to 0.8 per cent in 2014 due to flat oil production and investment.”

This follows five straight years of double-digit unemployment overall (despite one of the highest per-capita public-sector employment rates in the country) the slowest housing starts and lowest house prices east of Toronto. Then, of course, there is the fiscal morass: a $550-million annual budget deficit on a structural long-term debt of $11 billion, closing in on $12 billion.

This is the context in which Moncton now reviews its history by way of envisioning its future.

What does it want to be over the next 25 years, not merely to itself but to a province that, in important respects, has lost its way along with whatever mojo it once possessed?

History may open doors to the future, but attitude – and lots of it – marches us through them.

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Retooling New Brunswick’s economic engine

Resurgo, indeed!

Resurgo, indeed!

This past summer, the Petitcodiac River roared back to life, its tidal bore once more ascendent. Californian surf-boarders came to marvel at its muddy might and frolic in its frothy curl. You Tube went berserk and, for a short, sweet time, Moncton made headlines around the world.

Perhaps, then, it is fitting that the city’s largest downtown hotel, the site of the first economic summit for the municipal region in 20 years, should overlook a waterway whose resurgence holds more than metaphorical meaning. After all, it was not fate that brought back the bore after an absence of 40 years; it was us, mere mortals, who opened the causeway flood gates and kept them open.

As 300 of the community’s movers and shakers from all avenues of life prepare to assemble tonight at the Greater Moncton Economic Summit 2014, one wonders: What new gates shall they open?

Not even the event’s organizers can be sure. “We don’t know what they are going to come up with,” Ben Champoux, CEO of Enterprise Greater Moncton, told the Moncton Times & Transcript. “The tangible result is we are going to have a list of great ideas that are realistic, that are tangible, that people agree with.”

Still, why gather and why now? By every possible yardstick, the Greater Moncton  area has exceeded its own and others’ expectations over the years.

Dieppe, Moncton and Riverview currently comprise the fifth-fastest growing Census Metropolitan Area (CMA) in Canada. In fact, the region has typically attracted at least three times as many people every year than any other area in New Brunswick.

Since 1990, this CMA has added more than 25,000 jobs to its workforce. The annual unemployment rate is one of the lowest in the Atlantic region and substantially below the national average.

In Moncton, alone, home sales in 2011 reached the fourth-highest level in the city’s history. Yet, with an average house price of $158,561, the municipality remained one of the most affordable housing markets in the country.

Meanwhile, the total value of building permits issued in 2011 reached $184 million, the second highest level on record. What’s more, retail sales reached $2.1 billion in 2011, 17 per cent higher than the Canadian Cities’ average.

Then, of course, consider Greater Moncton’s formidable technology sector: major Canadian customer contact and back office operations with a robust “near-shore” IT outsourcing industry. It continues to leverage its success with a plan that calls for new partnerships with regional universities to deepen the region’s knowledge economy, diversify the IT economy, and actively promote tech-based entrepreneurship.

Given the broader context of a fiscally imperiled province and a moribund national economy, Greater Moncton is not only punching above its weight class; its punching above just about everyone else’s .

So, again, why bother brainstorming?

The answer is in the question. And it has something to do with an ounce of prevention.

Summits, conventions, conferences are only marginally useful when their conveners are mired in full-blown crises. Adrenaline and cortisol may be handy hormones to have in a fight. But they are not particularly conducive to rational, creative or innovative thinking.

Greater Moncton’s relatively healthy and prosperous economy permits the sort of blue-sky musings that arc out over the horizon to destinations that remain hidden in bad times. And, of course, the whole point of an idea factory, such as Summit 2014, is to figure out how to avoid the bad times altogether.

What new gates shall open, indeed?

What fresh ideas will be brought to bear on a downtown core that has, frankly, seen better days?

What will impel municipal officials and entrepreneurs to transform the concept of a multi-use events centre into actual bricks and mortar, sooner rather than later.

As Mr. Champoux astutely notes, “The dance floor is more crowded than ever before in economic development and business development. Let’s brainstorm and and define who we are now, what we want and how we are going to get there and who is going to lead that.”

Let us, indeed. Let us begin again.

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