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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