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.