Tag Archives: Moncton

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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Give The Hub a well-deserved hug

Up, up and away for Moncton

Up, up and away for Moncton

We touched down on the tarmac of the delightfully and grandiosely named Greater Moncton International Airport, and a line from an old Eric Clapton tune immediately sprang to mind: “Hello old friend, it’s really good to see you once again.”

We had been away, out west, where the news from the cities of our births had been simply and detestably rotten.

My Toronto was riven by controversy. Mayor Rob Ford had failed to obtain a clean bill of moral health from Hog Town’s top cop, Chief Bill Blair, who announced the results of his full-metal-jacket foray into a nest of alleged drug dens in the city’s north end. Writing in the Globe and Mail, municipal affairs columnist Marcus Gee reported, “The raid centred on the Dixon Road apartment complex associated with the purported Rob Ford crack video. Minutes away is the house where a photo was apparently taken showing Mr. Ford with three men, one of whom has since been murdered.”

As Mr. Gee archly observed, “What is not excusable is the mayor’s own persistent refusal to answers questions about the affair. He told reporters. . .that he knew nothing about the raid and had nothing to hide, but has yet to say. . .whether he has anything to do with the men in the notorious photo, what he was doing at the house where it was taken or whether he knows the people who live there (two of whom have criminal records, one for trafficking in cocaine).”

A few hundred kilometers up the St. Lawrence, the mayor of my wife’s Montreal, Michael Applebaum, had just resigned after Quebec police slapped charges of fraud, breach of trust and corruption on him.

As the CBC recounted the sorry saga, “(Mr.) Applebaum was selected as mayor by Montreal city council Nov. 16, 2012, following the resignation of Gérald Tremblay amid allegations of corruption. . .The province’s anti-corruption unit, UPAC, said the charges (against Mr. Applebaum) relate to obtaining permission and political support for two real estate projects in Montreal’s Côte-des-Neiges–Notre-Dame-de-Grâce borough between 2006 and 2011, during which time Applebaum was the borough’s mayor.”

All of which caused me to wonder whether Moncton’s Hizzoner, George LeBlanc (as honourable a fellow as the summer day is long), had misplaced his invitation to the party of Canadian mayors acting out. Thank Almighty God for the small mercies of prudence in public office, rare though this quality of character may be. These days, the headlines from The Hub are nothing but good, nothing but fortifying.

After a vote of 8-2, Moncton City Council agreed to purchase the former Highfield Square site in western part of the downtown area – the logical move towards building an events centre that could generate millions of dollars a year in tax and private-sector revenue. In fact, a related ballot green-lighted a request for proposals. According to a report in this newspaper, “If all goes according to the city’s timeline – funding help from the federal and provincial governments being the overwhelmingly large missing piece of the puzzle – work could start in 2015 and the project would be completed in early 2017.”

Meanwhile, the Moncton-based Atlantic Cancer Research Institute has made national news with its novel technology. Again, this newspaper reports, “(It’s) a time-sensitive, non-invasive clinical test in which a sign of cancer could be recognized without having conducted a biopsy. . . .Not only could the product detect early concentrations of diseased cells attributing to cancer, it could be used in detecting heart disease, neurological ailments, and many more health issues in both humans and animals.”

Granted, the ACRI – which has received many plaudits from leading scientific think tanks around the world – does not benefit directly from the good works and sound planning of the municipal authority. But both institutions say something larger about the community in general. And, compared with the sick melodies sung in certain other urban centres in this country, it’s a welcome and familiar refrain for a weary, returning traveller.

“Hello old friend,” indeed.

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No more detours for Moncton events centre

 Resurgo is action in latin. And that's a dead language. Get 'er done boys and girls

Resurgo is action in latin. And that’s a dead language. Get ‘er done boys and girls

Asking development consultant David Campbell and university economist Pierre-Marcel Desjardins to assess the likely commercial impact of a downtown events centre in Moncton was a tactically masterful maneuver. For City Council, it was also a courageous, even risky, one.

No one, it’s fair to say, knows more about how this municipality ticks than either of these two Hub City residents, who spend their days taking the pulse of the province and of its variously successful, variously struggling, communities. When they speak, as the tagline goes, people listen.

So, had Messrs. Campbell and Desjardins concluded, after careful examination, that a centre would not be worth the $100-million price to build, that would have been the end of it. That they have, in fact, found just the opposite suggests that city mothers and fathers no longer have any credible reason to pump the brakes on a project that would, almost certainly, resuscitate the urban core.

Not that many of them need much convincing. As Mayor George LeBlanc makes plain in a video posted to the city’s website, “Pursuing a new downtown, multipurpose sport and entertainment centre has been one of my key priorities for Moncton. . .It will make the downtown more vibrant and prosperous. It will be a catalyst for. . .development.”

How much development now seems clear.

According to Mr. Campbell’s presentation to Council this week, 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.”

Meanwhile, Mr. Desjardins 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, he indicated, sales from ongoing operations could easily reach $9.5 million in 2015 (assuming, of course, the centre is open for business by then).

But the important point, which Mr. Campbell argues rigorously and cogently, is that a new centre is not – as some have proposed – a luxury; it is quite nearly a necessity.

“Downtown – only 1.5% of the city’s land area – generates nearly 10% of the total assessed tax base and over 14.4% of property tax revenues,” he notes. In fact, the urban core “generates nearly 11.5 times as much property tax revenue, compared to the rest of Moncton, on a per hectare basis.” What’s more, “the cost to service the downtown is much lower compared to many other neighbourhoods and commercial areas around the city.”

Yet – though it plays host to 800 business, 3,000 bars, restaurants and cafes 18,000 workers, and anywhere from 1,200 to 5,700 residents (depending on how one fixes downtown “borders” – the area is in a state of disrepair.

“The economic engine is showing signs of weakness,” Mr. Campbell laments. “There is currently over 350,000 square feet of vacant office space in the downtown. Office space vacancies across Greater Moncton have risen from 6.6% in 2011 to an estimated 13.5% in 2013. Residential population in the core declined by 9.1% between 2006 and 2011. Including the expanded downtown, the population dropped by 3.3%. (This) compared to a robust 7.7% rise across the city.”

Given the fundamental importance of the downtown district to the city’s overall economic condition – and its evidently lackluster performance in recent years – a new centre, deliberately designed to breath life into the area, seems both right and logical.

Naturally, some will continue to argue that the virtues of such a project are merely ornamental. Certainly, City Council has employed a go-slow approach in deference, perhaps, to these voices and sometimes to its own bemusement (a graphic on the municipal website depicts its “step-by-step decision points” beneath images of waddling turtles and the headline, “Downtown Centre: Not a Done Deal”).

Still, with this new research in hand, surely the time has come to quicken the pace and proceed as this city has done so many times in the past: with cheerful assertiveness, if not abandon.

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