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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