Tag Archives: downtown events centre

As we build it, they do come


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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Moncton’s cultural climate change is past due



The great “snow dome of 2014” across the street from this fine rabbit warren of esteemed scribblers and other ink-stained wretches has all but vanished – proof, perhaps, that when Moncton wants to get things done, it does so in a more convincing fashion than any other city of its size in Canada. 

Here, even the weather cooperates, eventually.

Of course, what’s now emerging, as the ice melts, is the vast, crumbling parking lot that once belonged to the now vacant Highfield Square – a testament either to unrealized potential or dereliction of duty, depending on how the municipal cards fall over the next few months. 

In our bones, we Monctonians know that the greater metropolitan area needs, nay deserves, a new multi-purpose events and entertainment centre. We’ve been thinking about it for decades, talking about it for years. After all, it only makes sense.

A facility with suitable amenities and capacity (the sweet spot is between 9,000 and 12,000 seats) would generate, according to reputable estimates, between $12 and $15 million in annual spending and attract between 317,000 and 396,000 people to the downtown core, where 18,000 souls already work, thousands more reside and hundreds of shops, cafés, bistros, and restaurants operate under seasonably variable circumstances. A downtown centre would, quite simply, anchor these opportunities year round.

Those few among us who still cling to the proposition that Moncton is at its best when it’s flat on its back romanticize adversity to maniacally absurd dimensions. A turtle dies when it can’t turn over, when it can’t move. And Moncton is no turtle. 

Mayor George LeBlanc’s state of the city address earlier this week was instructive. In it, he reminded his Chamber of Commerce and Rotary Club audiences that a centre will cost $100 million, give or take, and that “we have to get it right. Let’s go big or stay home.”

He also pointed out, according to a report in this newspaper that, “for the first time, the city reached more than $400 million in tourist dollars spent last year – $409 million, to be exact. Moncton saw 1.65 million visitors in 2013, which outperformed all of the Maritime cities by about 20 per cent. LeBlanc reiterated the city’s stance on a hotel levy which would need to be regulated by the province. It would aid the infrastructure spending needed to attract even more tourists to the city.”

What’s more, “LeBlanc touched on the fact that the city saw an average of about $500,000 in new construction spending a day with 2013’s total building permits issued and reminded those at the meeting that Moncton was named best place to do business in all of North America – not once but twice, referring to 2012’s and 2013’s KPMG cost-competitive ratings.”

These are not the indicators of a city that resigns itself to second- or third-rate status in the nation’s municipal cosmos. 

Moncton’s civic boosters (and I am one of them) have routinely trotted out that old trope that we “punch above our weight class.” It’s a phrase that always plays well in the center of the country, where condescending attitudes about small cities insulates citizens in the megalopolis from the truth about their obligations to the rest of us. Good for us, they say; just as long as we look after our own problems, as we orphans in this Constitution must. 

I wonder if we, in this distinctly unpromising corner of of the nation, should adopt any spin-managed message to represent ourselves to the world. Our economic development record in Moncton speaks for itself. Our community is as diverse and vibrant as any other in this country. We have been, and continue to be, the masters of our own fortunes – the true “hub”’of economic adventure, of enterprise, in New Brunswick. 

That we should honour this by enhancing it with a sparkling, glittering, ridiculously busy downtown core is, frankly, a no-brainer. It’s in our civic DNA. It’s our customary right of passage through the chaos of economic and social dislocation elsewhere in New Brunswick. 

It is time to move our municipal conscience forward, before another deep winter buries us in ice, before our hearts finally fail to melt the “snow dome” that threatens to take up permanent residence where culture deserves to triumph.


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Put Moncton’s future in the hands of the willing


It’s fast becoming apparent that if the community of interests that comprises Greater Moncton intends to erect any of its many imagined monuments to civic pride and progress (including, but not limited to, a downtown events centre) it must turn to private enterprises, voluntary organizations and institutions to get the job done.

Governments, it seems, are otherwise occupied counting their dwindling supply of loonies and obfuscating the public debate with impenetrable statements like the one Moncton City Manager Jacques Dube issued the other day to a Moncton Times & Transcript reporter on the subject of concert dates for Magnetic Hill:

“(City) staff need a couple more weeks to prepare final recommendations in relation to potential changes to concert and event governance, organizational structures and any new financial parameters regarding future concerts and events at Magnetic Hill, the Stadium, the Coliseum and other city venues.”

From this, it seems entirely reasonably to conclude that bafflegab-production has usurped actual event-prospecting over at Casa del Mudtown.

The good news is that just as some city officials and elected representatives (not all, to be sure and to be fair) take their time figuring out how they feel about our live sports and entertainment scene – i.e., whether or not a new events centre should support a full-blown, downtown renaissance, or just itself; whether or not Magnetic Hill will ever again attract the likes of the Rolling Stones, and 75,000 fans, for one weekend of gloriously bacchanalian spending – some of us, at least, are willing to pick up the ball.

I’m not especially fond of summitry in any of its guises. Too often, events involving a few hundred people, representing a few hundred different points of view, convened to “get things done” produce precisely the opposite effect. But the final report of the recent “Greater Moncton – One Region, One Vision 2014” conference suggests that this gathering was the happy exception to my rule.

Most impressive, perhaps, was the degree of unanimity it achieved on concrete issues that affect all sectors and industry segments in the metropolitan area.

All participants agreed, for example, that the tri-city area must draw more talent, more immigrants, into its orbit. “Our economic, cultural and social advancement will be strengthened through attracting more newcomers to the community,” the report observed. “Even the professional sectors are having a harder time attracting workers compared to the recent past.”

Though summiteers complained about the federal government’s notoriously ineffectual temporary foreign worker program, some suggested solutions they, themselves, could offer, such as “strengthening the linkages between industries and educational institutions; and raising the profile of industry among young people.”

Other priorities included engendering greater “industry-specific collaboration” to address joint problems; nurturing entrepreneurship and “strengthening the start-up ecosystem (involving) access to capital, mentorship and guidance and physical incubation spaces; and “fostering Greater Moncton’s role as a regional services centre” especially for the nascent natural gas industry in the province.

Of course, we know a community is largely on the right course when its members – ably articulating its advantages as well as its challenges – find that its strengths and weakness are actually two signs of the same municipal coin.

By summit consensus, for example, one of Greater Moncton’s top 10 competitive boons is its “entrepreneurial spirit”. At the same time, one of its key drawbacks is the “lack of new entrepreneurs.”

These two facts, juxtaposed as they are in the same urban headspace, immediately suggest strategies for real progress – the obvious one being to leverage the experience of existing entrepreneurs to mentor, promote and provide new opportunities for promising, youthful startups.

This is the type of active, collaborative, inventive, and mindful approach to solving problems and, frankly, just getting things done that this metropolitan area needs now, before it grows inured to habitual underachievement in governments at all levels.

So says the Summit report: “The success of Greater Moncton over the past 25 years has been in large part due to cooperation and collaboration. The 2014 Greater Moncton Economic Summit was the start of a process meant to rekindle this spirit of collaboration.”

We may only hope that from Moncton City Hall’s perspective that process comes just in the nick of time.

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Get the comedy out of city hall and onto a proper stage


How many times shall we pose the existential query that pertains to Moncton’s, as yet entirely fictional, downtown events centre? How much patience must we yet muster before we finally obtain an answer?

To build or under-build: that is the question:

Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer

The slings and arrows of outrageous Council,

Or to take arms against a sea of dragging feet,

And by opposing trip them?

Naturally, I extend my deepest apology to Bill Shakespeare’s phantom, both for mangling one of his finest soliloquies and for inappropriately inserting it into the wrong fantastical genre.

After all, Hamlet is high tragedy, whereas the play underway at Moncton City Hall seems more, in form and function, an Italian farce, if by this we accept the dictionary’s definition of a “light, dramatic composition that uses highly improbable situations, stereotyped characters and broad humour.”

According to The Moncton Times & Transcript’s Cole Hobson, reporting yesterday, “a preliminary copy of the potential RFP details that the centre must have a minimum of 7,500 permanent seats, which is significantly lower than figures that have been discussed in the past and not much larger than the current fixed-seat capacity of the Moncton Coliseum, which sits around 6,500.”

So irked by this were the organ’s sturdy, fearless opinionators that the lead editorial in yesterday’s T&T concluded in righteous exasperation, “A new centre, based on the original concept of seating in the 10,000 to 12,000 range with an ability to be expanded in the future, would cost $100 million or more, but would attract a far greater variety of events and thus generate the kind of entrepreneurial interest that would lead to at least another $100 million in related development.”

As to the kicker, “If this council can’t embrace the future, it might as well cling to the past,” I heartily concur. And I don’t even come from here.

In fact, I come from a couple of places where this sort of nonsense happens all the time, where institutional hemming and hawing and corrosive uncertainties among the penny-wise and pound-foolish virtually paralyze municipal chambers. Even when they don’t, the decisions are invariably absurd and counterproductive. (Halifax City Council’s endless debates over which view of the harbour should take precedence over the construction of which mixed-use high rise are legendary).

Which brings us back around to the little matter of seven-thousand-five-hundred seats. I’ve said it once; I’ll say it again: That’s not enough to do the job of a proper multi-use events centre. So, then, why bother?

A proper multi-use events centre draws and hosts gigs from every possible quarter of the world’s $4-trillion entertainment-and-sports-industrial complex. That means its capacity must meet a specific threshold to attract a wider variety of performances and events. Below this mark of 10K-15K seats, we’re stuck with, at best, serving the status quo; at worst, losing business that was once ours to venues in places like Summerside (Sound familiar?)

On the other hand, if we do it right, according to a research report by Moncton-based Jupia Consultants, we can legitimately expect that 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.”

We know this, don’t we? We’ve been yakking about it for years. And for years, we’ve been chasing our tails in City Council like the bumbling protagonists of the 19th Century stage trifle, The Italian Straw Hat.

To his credit, Mayor George LeBlanc has been clear and consistent on the issue. In yesterday’s piece, he said that he “personally” believed in “something in the range of 9,000 seats, plus suites and club seats. . .which would bring the total capacity up to about 10,000 seats. . .I think at this stage of the game, we really need to be looking forward, not backward.”

Yes, we do, and before we come to the grinding realization that we, in this community, have lost interest in taking a bold, leading role in our own lives.

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Jolting Moncton’s priorities to life


The fact that Moncton city council even maintains a list of priorities to pursue in its effort to better the community it serves speaks volumes about the worthy preoccupation with thoughtful civic planning around here. After all, few municipalities of comparable size spend much energy crafting “to-dos” and even less time fulfilling them. 

Still, there is something broadly disappointing about an ersatz action plan (the existence of which came to light in the Moncton Times & Transcript last week) whose number one standard operating procedure is to “continue to foster a culture of fiscal responsibility.” Really? As opposed to what?

Had the vow been to spend money like this was our last day on Earth – to go into cosmic hock building a fleeting, terrestrial version of Paradise because the only debt collector is the Grim Reaper, himself, and he’s got bigger fish to fry – well. . .at least that would have been interesting. Irresponsible, but interesting.

What, exactly, is intriguing about a promise to keep our fiscal noses from running? Who and what is that supposed to inspire?

When I check my personal Ten Commandments, affixed via post-it note to my bathroom mirror, before my daily, morning ablutions, I do not see inscribed there, “Thou shalt not rob Peter to pay Paul. . .not today, anyway.”

Nowhere do I encounter admonitions to cut back on $4-a-cup cappuccinos or to switch to a cheaper, less talented hair dresser because, after all, a penny saved is a penny earned and that’s exactly what’s written on my calling card.

No, what I see staring back at me from my looking glass are phrases like “Go Big or Go Home!” and “Shock and Awe is a Way of Life!” and “Be Amazing!”

Okay, so maybe they’re not affixed to my bathroom mirror (who does that anyway?). But, over the years and with the help of boardofwisdom.com’s inspirational quotes page, I have made a small collection of various motivational squibs, none of which, I hasten to point out, has anything to do with maintaining a healthy bank account.

Here’s one: “Never tell me the sky’s the limit when there are footprints on the moon.” Here’s another: “I do it because I can, I can because I want to, I want to because you said I couldn’t.” And there’s this: “Everything is okay in the end, if it’s not ok then it’s not the end.”

Perhaps most disappointing is how far down on city council’s list “reinforcing Moncton’s position as a sports and entertainment hub” appears. It’s number 11, just below the commitment to “launch Magnetic Hill Zoo’s 5-year plan” and just above a rather amorphous declaration to “support and promote arts, culture and heritage/incent public art with an emphasis on the downtown.”

Other priorities, chronicled in order, include stimulating economic growth (2), fixing public transit (3), creating a Tourism Marketing Fund (4), promoting “business-friendly services and processes”, ie., cutting red tape (5), developing the downtown area (6), pursuing “environmental stewardship” (7), welcome immigrants (8), and “invest in parks and trails” (9). Way down at the bottom in 16th place is “promote affordable housing/assist in poverty reduction”, below the one about enhancing “democracy in our local government” (14), which one might persuasively argue should head the entire crop of promises and imprecations.

On the “capital projects” side of the ledger, the top priority is, again, tethered to cash flow – or, at least, the desperate fear of running short of the stuff, as implied by the wording, “reduce Moncton’s infrastructure deficit.” Building a “downtown multi-purpose sports and entertainment centre” is number two on that particular list.

And this is, of course, the problem with this sort of exercise. It’s both exhausting and dispiriting. Worse, it’s futile.

“Reinforcing Moncton’s position as a sports and entertainment hub” is exactly on par with “developing the downtown area” and vice versa. Anyone who demurs has evidently never spent any time on Main Street during one of these summer extravaganzas.

In fact, most, if not all, of Moncton’s priorities are horizontal, interconnected and self-reinforcing – as they should be in any healthy community.

Ranking them distorts an overarching municipal vision, which is just as injurious to thoughtful civic planning as is a self-imposed injunction to follow the money, above all else and come what may.

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If we build it, will more be in store?

If a city measures its civic ambitions by the plans it makes for its downtown areas, then is Moncton poised for a new age of urban renewal?

We can boost and boast till all the pigeons fly their concrete coops along Main Street, but we must admit that the business core – stretching west to Vaughan Harvey Boulevard, east to King Street, north to St. George and south to Assumption Boulevard – has not always reflected the broader community’s tough, entrepreneurial, sophisticated, technologically savvy, and culturally rich attitudes and endowments.

Too many store fronts remain shuttered, too many office spaces are begging for tenants, too many edifices exude that unpleasant aura of dissolution so familiar to urban planners the world over.

And that’s a problem because while other parts of the city can periodically languish without compromising the social and economic integrity of the whole, the downtown is the community’s commons. Its vibrancy electrifies the neighborhoods that surround it, just as its rot eventually spreads throughout the civic body.

Fortunately, we are in no immediate threat of contracting such municipal gangrene. A few years ago, Mayor George LeBlanc offered me a vigorous defense of Moncton’s progress. “Look at what has been happening in just the past five or 10 years,” he said. “In 1996, we had 8,000 people working in the downtown area. Today, we have 15,000. We’ve opened up a public Wi-Fi network, and we’ve seen quite a few high-tech companies doing big things locate in the downtown.”

He wasn’t wrong. In fact, progress is palpable today, even in the downtown, which plays host to thousands of businesses, bars, restaurants and cafes,18,000 office workers, and anywhere from 1,200 to 5,700 residents depending on how you fixes downtown “borders”.

Today, Moncton is a major Canadian customer contact and back office centre with a robust “near-shore” IT outsourcing industry. And 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.

Still, a downtown is more than the sum of its moving parts. Like any good and growing garden, it requires constant attention and vigilance – even a little creative experimentation, from time to time.

As The Moncton Times & Transcript reported on Friday, the “proposed Downing Street restoration, a project in honour of Moncton’s 135th anniversary in 2015, is embracing four key themes – Downtown, Celebration, Art & Storytelling and Sustainability.”

The idea is to redevelop the dead-end street – between the Blue Cross complex and the McSweeney Block – that spills out into combined parking lots into an avenue down to the river. “This is an opportunity to explore every possibility,” Mr. LeBlanc said, referring to the plethora of planning options available to the city.

Some may question the value of the project on strictly economic grounds. Shouldn’t we spend our time and money of a downtown events centre? After all, we already expect that such a facility would draw 350,000 a year, generate about $14 million in spending and, in the words of economic development agency Jupia Consultants, “support retail, food service, accommodation and other services in the downtown,” where it “should also support residential growth.”

Meanwhile, another report has 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, it indicated, sales from ongoing operations could easily reach $9.5 million in 2015 (assuming, of course, the centre is open for business by then).

Compared with this, critics may query, what does a road to the river offer?

That, of course, is the wrong question.

The marvelous thing about investing in urban infrastructure is the multiplier effect. Almost any beautification, redevelopment or expansion project yields new opportunities for others.

In this respect, the Downing Street initiative and an events centre complement one another. Both will encourage people to get into the happy and productive habit of spending time (and money) in (and on) our core, of forging the common bonds of community that, in fact, attract and keep industries, entrepreneurs and skilled workers.

In our capacious suburban homes where we park our cars and RVs, we would do well to remember that our downtown areas are not only the manifestations of our ambitions; they are also the means to those ends.

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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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