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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