Tag Archives: David Campbell

Leading sheep to a dog’s breakfast

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One of my favorite jokes about economists goes a little like this:

“Man walking along a road in the countryside comes across a shepherd and a huge flock of sheep. Tells the shepherd, ‘I will bet you $100 against one of your sheep that I can tell you the exact number in this flock.’ The shepherd thinks it over; it’s a big flock so he takes the bet. ‘973,’ says the man. The shepherd is astonished, because that is exactly right. ‘OK, I’m a man of my word, take an animal.’ Man picks one up and begins to walk away.”

Then, suddenly: “‘Wait,’ cries the shepherd, ‘Let me have a chance to get even. Double or nothing that I can guess your exact occupation’. Man says sure. ‘You are an economist for a government think tank,’ says the shepherd. ‘Amazing!’ responds the man, ‘You are exactly right! But tell me, how did you deduce that?’

“‘Well,’ says the shepherd, ‘put down my dog and I will tell you.’”

That comes courtesy of the Wharton School of Business, via the Internet. My only edit would be that, in the end, the “man” refuses to reveal his true identity. After all, no self-respecting economist I’ve ever known can ever get enough pooches whose entrails are healthy enough with which to predict the future of humankind.

All of which suggests that New Brunswick’s corps of economists must be the smartest professionals of their ilk anywhere in the world. Not only have they unanimously deduced (in a bevy of Brunswick News Inc. organs) that the provincial economy is failing, they have picked up the right animal to prove their point (it’s a sheep, in case you missed the metaphor).

Said New Brunswick’s Chief economist David Campbell (who is actually a good friend of mine), the degree to which the labour market in the province is winnowing is alarming. In fact, noting a recent Statistics Canada report earlier this month, the 6,000 jobs we lost in February, amounts to the “size of your capacity to meet the labour needs of your economy.”

Added Craig Brett, an economist at Mount Allison University: “I don’t usually put much stock in month-to-month unemployment figures for small provinces. . . But a trend like this over several months is worrying.”

So concurred David Murrell, an economics professor at the University of New Brunswick: “I think there has to be a dynamic provincial economic plan that has to be followed and I don’t see it realized.”

No kidding. Currently, the overall unemployment rate in the province is a hair’s breadth shy of 10 per cent, up from 9.3, 8.9 and 8.7 per cent in each of the previous three months. The workforce participation rate is lower than it’s been since the early days of the global financial crisis of 2007-08.

What’s to be done? That, lamentably, is a question no economist can answer convincingly. The issue is not actually within their various wheelhouses of expertise. They can tell us that elected leaders are leading the rest of us, like sheep, to a dog’s breakfast. But changing the menu is ultimately up to the rest of us, and that process starts with asking hard questions, and demanding good answers – not only of the people we send to office, but of ourselves.

What, exactly, are the collaborative economic, commercial, social, and fiscal tools that we need to wield among us to build the durable, sustainable, prosperous society that befits neither sheep, nor dog, but just us: we helpless, hopeful, humans?

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As we build it, they do come

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A simple stroll down Moncton’s Main Street reveals the incongruity between the cloistered and the prodigal.

If you dare to see, you will notice entire blocks of historic edifices falling into disrepair, vacant and lonely but for the ghosts of past prosperities they must surely host, even now.

You will perceive the empty storefronts; the blinkered windows, the shuttered doors and the pigeon poop almost everywhere. You will witness what the sedentary rarely observe behind their towers of glass and concrete: an urban core begging for meaningful renewal.

What shape, then, shall it take?

I press my face to the fence that traverses Main from the bottom of Highfield Street and west to Vaughan-Harvey Boulevard. I watch the builders clear the ground for a foundation, from which girders will soar, on which a new chance for some sort of urban renaissance might take root.

I travel down the byway awhile and find a small café at which to ruminate. Here, over a small cappuccino, I dip into the local paper. “Construction on the first phase of Moncton’s new downtown events center has already generated more than $16.5 million in building permits,” the story reports.

Richard Dunn, the city’s economic development officer, is effusive. He says, “We expect the whole downtown center project will spur development in the vicinity of the building. There are a lot of developers who have been waiting for it to start.”

That’s not all, he assures. “It’s not just the events center. We are expecting big changes along Main Street as we have redevelopment grants available for the downtown core and heritage buildings,” he says.

I hope he’s right. So does the Conference Board of Canada, which recently staked at least a minor portion of its vaunted reputation as a reliable economic prognosticator on the efficacious effects of a new multi-use facility in Moncton’s urban core. (That organization predicts a 3.7 per cent, year-over-year growth rate in the Hub City, thanks to construction activity, alone).

In 2013, real research told the tale of this major build in, arguably, New Brunswick’s most commercially successful city.

David Campbell, the province’s current chief economist (who was an independent economic development consultant at the time) told Moncton City Council that the new downtown center, 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.”

The important point, which Mr. Campbell argued rigorously and cogently, was 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 pointed out. 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 around the city.”

Nearly five years later, these facts ring true. Yet – though the downtown hosts 800 business, 3,000 bars, restaurants and cafes, 18,000 workers, and anywhere from 1,200 to 5,700 residents – the area is in a state of disrepair.

Perhaps this will change in the coming months, as those who have been cloistered walk out their doors and imagine the civic life that could be, sometime soon, all around them.

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New Brunswick’s chance for change

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It should be clear by now that if New Brunswick has a three-card-monte player’s chance of turning over a new leaf and leaving the mean streets, where gambling on the future is a permanent feature of economic policy, it will be through the resilience, courage and conviction of individual men and women.

Call it the “New Prohibition”. And its temperance leaders include social activists, political players and even a few economists.

“It’s crunch time, New Brunswick,” the provincial minister for strategic review, Victor Boudreau, wrote in a commentary for the Saint John Telegraph-Journal earlier this January. “In one month’s time, we will complete the Strategic Program Review (SPR) process.”

Why anyone would want to slap an acronym on what should be business as usual for any elected government has mystified scholars and plebeians, alike, for at least the past 5,000 years. Still, I digress.

“The. . .process,” Mr. Boudreau said, “consisted of several engagement opportunities allowing New Brunswickers to provide input and ideas on how to right our fiscal ship so we can sail to a better, sustainable future.

“Those opportunities included: 14 public dialogue sessions, five regional stakeholder sessions, community groups hosting their own session, Strategic Program Review forums, and online input through email or by regular mail.

“More than 1,200 people attended our public dialogue sessions, more than 100 representatives of stakeholder groups attended our meetings; more than 9,000 ideas were submitted online, by email or mail.”

All of which might suggest that this provincial government will have to hire back all the people it has laid off just to scrum through the suggestions it has received to, among other things, cut the size of the civil service.

Folks, let’s be clear. These exercises are almost always rigged to separate a fool from his or her aspirations for democratic representation. These road-show barkers don’t really want to hear what you have to say; they desire only to convince you that what you crave for your corner of the world is more important than inspiring you to embrace a true communitarian response to the problems that, to one degree or another, afflict all of us in this province.

What did Machiavelli say about dividing and conquering?

Like three-card-monte, this is a chump’s game that no one but the dealer can win on the mean streets of the villages, towns and cities of one of the least promising provinces in Canada. This is politics, and it rarely changes, though the partisan colours it variously adopts shift and adjust with nauseating frequency.

When will we learn that we are one people in a small, undistinguished part of the world whose best chance at long-term prosperity is to work together in creativity, good humour and risible innovation?

And yet, through the predictable darkness comes some light. Over the past several months, men and women of good conscience in New Brunswick have come forward to embrace the game of chance at a new future. One of these is my colleague and good friend David Campbell, the province’s chief economist. On a mild, wintry day before Christmas, he sat down with a few people in Moncton and outlined his growth plan for the province. It wasn’t perfect, but it was honest, genuine and compassionate.

I’m certain that his provincial bosses coordinated his effort. His disposition and ideas, however, were all his own.

In the end, it will be through the resilience, courage and conviction of people like him – and, like us – that New Brunswick turns over a new leaf.

Call it the “New Prohibition” against the status quo.

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A voice from the wilderness

Permanent winter for a Moncton events centre?

Permanent winter for a Moncton events centre?

Was it only a stitch in time, a hiccup in history, a diaphanous dream, or did Greater Moncton once actually believe that its downtown was worth preserving, protecting, even pampering?

Or were we always determined to be Fargo, North Dakota, where the ribbon developments and strip malls make Detroit look like heaven on Earth?

A couple of years ago, Moncton economic development consultant David Campbell (now chief economist of the Province of New Brunswick) and university economist Pierre-Marcel Desjardins put numbers to the proposition of rejuvenating Moncton’s urban core.

According to Mr. Campbell, in a report to City Council, a new centre would annually “attract between 317,000 and 396,000 people. . .generating between $12 and $15 million in spending.” In the process, it would “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.

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 noted in his report to City Council. 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.”

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 here.

It’s a question that Adam Conter appears to ask daily. At a Moncton City Council meeting a couple of weeks ago, the former Haligonian – a transplanted real-estate professional – testified that such a centre is “good for the province. . .the conversation over the past couple of weeks has been that this centre seems to be the divining rod. . .We are going to run a $479-million deficit (in this province), of which (the centre costs the province) $24 million. (That) represents 0.5 per cent (of the budget). If we were to have a rounding error, we could build the centre for that money.”

Of course, he is entirely correct and in preaching to Moncton Council he is, against few notable exceptions, preaching to the choir.

But this thing of ours will only get done when we finally decide whether or not we want a downtown area to nurture our diverse cultures, our economic potential.

Otherwise, the ribbons and highway malls of Fargo beckon.

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Is it a whole new ball game for N.B.?

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When a government seeks a home run in the early innings of its time at bat, it helps to have a couple of heavy hitters warming up in the dugout.

Last week, New Brunswick’s Grit Premier Brian Gallant announced his appointments of three all-stars in the field of economic and business development to help shepherd the province’s new Jobs Board secretariat.

According to the premier, Jacques Pinet (as the group’s new chief executive officer), Susan Holt (as the new chief of business relationships) and David Campbell (as the new chief economist of New Brunswick) “will work to set the conditions for growth so that we can help our province’s businesses and entrepreneurs create jobs which will, in turn, help improve our finances. . .These individuals each join government with a strong and diverse background in the private sector.”

For their part, the individuals in question appear as fired up about their new positions and the promise of making a difference as do their bosses Gallant and Economic Development Minister Rick Doucet, who jointly chair the Jobs Board.

“The time is right to change the way we approach economic development and job creation in New Brunswick,” said Pinet, a Moncton lawyer and former senior executive of Assumption Life. “It is clear the status quo is not working. Jobs Board represents a fresh opportunity to re-invigorate our economy. I am honoured to be part of these efforts.”

Added Holt, the former chief executive officer of the New Brunswick Business Council, “New Brunswick has a history of entrepreneurship and innovation. I am looking forward to working with our business community to unleash their ideas and establish the kind of environment that will lead to job creation and prosperity in today’s economy.”

In fact, said Campbell, an economic development consultant and researcher, “Together, Opportunities NB and Jobs Board will help the government better co-ordinate and evaluate job creation efforts. Diversifying the economy, developing the workforce and making strategic investments in infrastructure are all examples of the way we can work towards the common goal of job creation.”

To say that these folks have their work cut out for them vastly understates the case.

The province’s fiscal morass of rolling annual deficits amounting to hundreds-of-millions of dollars a year on a longterm, structural debt of some $2 billion reflects an even more worrying combination of conditions that have, for years, conspired to undermine economic capacity in the province.

The labour force is dwindling, strategic infrastructure for business development is only just keeping pace with the rest of the developed world, and innovation, commercialization and productivity rates haven’t budged convincingly since the turn of the century.

As the national unemployment rate continues to drop (to 6.6 per cent last month), New Brunswick’s remains stuck in the 10 per cent range (though, this is likely the most optimistic number a statistician will average, as the actual, seasonally adjusted, rate in many parts of the province is closer to 18 per cent, especially among young, employable people).

I know Pinet only by reputation. I know Holt only slightly better. But I’ve been a friend and colleague of Campbell’s for years and he is – as is I imagine each of his new colleagues – the right person for the right job at the right time.

He is certainly correct when he writes, as he did recently, on his blog, “If we don’t find a way to get the province’s economy back to at least a moderate level of economic growth no amount of fiscal austerity will be enough to bring balance to the province’s books.”

That sounds like a cue if there ever was one.

Dear Messrs. Campbell and Pinet – dear Ms. Holt – your time at bat is drawing near. Let’s see how you hit it out of the park.

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Will this be the year of the ‘centre’?

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.

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How howling from the edges of sanity is good for New Brunswick

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As voices in the wilderness, we raise our rhetoric to match the long, lonely howls that issue from the pits of our guts. We see the future from our perches at the peripheries of Main Street, Freddy Beach, Parliament Hill and, yes, even Wall Street.

And, from that vantage, the future of this province is (trust me) utterly howl-worthy.

We are the pundits of New Brunswick, whose opinions about such things as economic development, social sustainability, energy policy, and fiscal management are sometimes politely acknowledged, but more often violently rejected.

We’re used to it.

Our fellow citizens are, after all, entitled to the pabulum their elected representatives ritually spoon into their pie holes when said representatives promise that their gruel will, in the end, taste like filet mignon.

But when guys like David Campbell, writing for the Saint John Telegraph-Journal, and scribes like Bill Belliveau and Norbert Cunningham, penning for the Moncton Times & Transcript, are routinely vilified for pointing out the patently obvious, and necessarily important, about this province’s. . .um. . .let’s just say “challenges”, I am risibly motivated to whip out my formidable arsenal of wordy invective to level the decidedly unlevel playing field that is the blogosphere.

Then again, what would be the point of that when we have Donald Savoie in our philosophical corner.

The “great prognosticator” issued another in a long line of epistles from his mount at the University of Moncton the other day.

In this one, he wrote, “Whether one likes it or not, the global economy is here and it is highly competitive. New Brunswick has to compete with what it has, not with what it wishes it had. I was surprised (during the recent provincial election campaign) to hear aspiring politicians and observers making the case. . .that we can say no to development opportunities in the natural resources sector and that all we need to do (is) create new economic activities to diversify our economy. How can we do this?”

Good question (though, it is rhetorical).

Allow me, pundit-wise, to take a crack at an answer (though it be unrhetorical).

Posit the following: Natural gas is far less damaging to the environment than any other form of fossil fuel; its extraction technologies for both orthodox and unorthodox plays are proven, safe and reliable; its delivery infrastructure is far less likely to fail and, therefore, pollute than those for crude and refined oil and coal.

Now, acknowledge the following: There is enough shale gas lying beneath the surface of this province to power local economies for decades through extraction, transportation and refining activities, alone. But that is only the outline of the big picture (if we had big-picture thinkers at our various seats of government, they might have paid attention decades ago).

The true, long-term potential of this resource, should we choose to embrace our own economic interests, is technological and innovative leverage.

Even the most committed environmentalists must surely realize by now that transitioning to a fully sustainable, renewable energy future will only succeed when we finally learn how to deploy the relatively cheap energy we harvest from the ground and the sea beds.

Almost every component of a wind turbine, a tidal array, a solar facility, a hybrid automobile, a bloody, backyard greenhouse is a product, directly or indirectly, of refined petroleum, cracked into shape for re-manufacture into the building blocks of plastic, pure and simple. That’s the foundational reality of our industrial economy; it has been for 100 years.

Saying we wish it weren’t so won’t make it go away.

What might, though, over time, is a coordinated, comprehensive public-private partnership to transform New Brunswick into a think tank, industrial test site and centre of excellence for repurposing the world’s excess plastic as the building blocks of sustainable, renewable energy technologies.

From here, the province – with its surfeit of institutes of advanced education relative to its population – could pioneer a global standard for delimiting the use of petroleum products to, in effect, manufacture only those technologies that produce sustainable, renewable, in-situ energy (lamentably, planes, trains and automobiles must be off the table for the time being).

Off course, mine is just one voice in the wilderness of ideas.

Let the vilification commence.

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No more detours for Moncton events centre

 Resurgo is action in latin. And that's a dead language. Get 'er done boys and girls

Resurgo is action in latin. And that’s a dead language. Get ‘er done boys and girls

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.

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