As 2014 rounds the bend and dashes straight for the finish line, Moncton remains that one indisputably bright beacon of economic hope for New Brunswick.
Far less certain, however, is the role the Hub City’s urban core will play in providing cultural and commercial coherence for the broader municipal area.
A vacant lot now yawns where Highfield Square once stood – the future home, presumably, of a mixed-use entertainment and sports facility.
Public opinion surveys over the past couple of years have suggested that most residents both want and expect a new events centre to tie together the loose ends of Moncton’s downtown.
And yet, whenever I broach the subject either in conversation or print, I’m just as likely to evoke bitter opposition as I am support for such a project. (In fact, I am growing quite fond of the hardy cohort of outraged readers who insist that my endorsement only proves that I have sold my God-given talents to corporate demons who just want public dollars to build them another hockey rink).
Indeed, the city’s collective mind seems torn between dueling conceptions of civic life: forced development and revitalization or market-driven urban sprawl.
Still, a city without a vibrant downtown is, simply, no city at all; and there is very little doubt that a new centre (hockey rink and much more) will go a long way towards consolidating the urban core.
As Mayor George LeBlanc once declared in a promotional 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.”
Not long ago, Moncton economic development consultant David Campbell and university economist Pierre-Marcel Desjardins put numbers to the boast.
According to the former, in a report to City Council, 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 crucial point, which Mr. Campbell argued 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 per cent of the city’s land area – generates nearly 10 per cent of the total assessed tax base and over 14.4 per cent 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 lamented. “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 per cent in 2011 to an estimated 13.5 per cent in 2013. Residential population in the core declined by 9.1 per cent between 2006 and 2011. Including the expanded downtown, the population dropped by 3.3 per cent. (This) compared to a robust 7.7 per cent rise across the city.”
A new centre that hosts a wide variety of events, with enough seats to compete for top shows, will incontestably revitalize the downtown area.
The real question is whether that’s still a priority in the little city that could.