Tag Archives: economic development

Use it or lose it

How do I love thee, federal government? Let me count the ways. I love thee to the depth and breadth and height my bank account can reach, when feeling out of sight for years on end. I love thee to the level of every day’s most quiet infrastructure announcement, by sun and candlelight.

My apologies to the late Elizabeth Barrett Browning for butchering one of her finer sonnets, but expediency sometimes trumps good taste (Hey, see what I did there? The words “trump” and “good taste” floated in the same sentence?)

But I digress.

Whenever Ottawa grants money for big builds in Atlantic Canada (and elsewhere in this country), provinces and municipalities are expected to pick up the slack, regardless of their respective economic circumstances. That’s the reality of a three-tiered system of government. Is this fair? Is it even sensible? Does it matter? It’s simply a fact of living and working in what the United Nations terms as one of the top ten jurisdictions on Earth for that ineffable, yet desirable, designation: Best Place Ever!

Now, we learn that New Brunswick simply hasn’t spent enough money in the federal tax pouch. In fact, this province is $30 million shy of its target, and if we don’t use it pronto, we’ll lose it. Or so says a piece this week in the Telegraph-Journal:

“The Gallant government says there is ‘absolutely no risk’ that (the federal money) earmarked for New Brunswick will go unspent before a looming deadline. . .A recent report showing spending from Infrastructure Canada says the federal government has given provinces an territories an ultimatum: Identify projects or all the money left from a 2014 infrastructure program or watch it go elsewhere.”

How delicious and how exquisite this is. We all pay into the Canada Revenue Agency and assume that our contributions will not only compensate national MPs and their senatorial counterparts for their sometimes bullish and oftentimes somnambulant protestations, but also ourselves – in our publicly assented pension plans, in reasonable management of our funds, in sense and sensibility from our public servants.

Yet, there remains this from a Government of Canada website:

“The Gas Tax Fund provides municipalities with a permanent, predictable and indexed source of long-term funding, enabling construction and rehabilitation of core public infrastructure. It offers local communities the flexibility to make strategic investments across 18 different project categories, including roads and bridges, public transit, drinking water and wastewater infrastructure, and recreational facilities. The fund promotes investments in increased productivity and economic growth, a clean environment, and strong cities and communities. The Gas Tax Fund started in 2005-2006 and is ongoing.”

Then there’s this: The Municipal Asset Management Program (MAMP) delivered by the Federation of Canadian Municipalities (FCM) is a five year, $50 million program that will help Canadian municipalities make informed infrastructure investment decisions based on sound asset management practices. The MAMP was launched in February 2017 and is scheduled to end in 2021-2022.”

And this: “The Municipalities for Climate Innovation Program delivered by the Federation of Canadian Municipalities (FCM) is a five-year, $75 million program that provides funding, training and resources to help Canadian municipalities adapt to the impacts of climate change and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The MCIP was launched in February 2017 and is scheduled to end in 2021-2022.”

Use or lose?

To butcher, again, the prose of the great poet Browning, I will quote: “With my lost saints. I love thee with the breath, smiles, tears, of all my life; and, if God choose, I shall but love thee better after death.”

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A modest proposal for New Brunswick

We could sell the snow. There's plenty of that

We could sell the snow. There’s plenty of that

In the annals of economic perdition along Canada’s benighted East Coast, Cape Breton is often cited as the exemplar of Murphy’s Law, where everything that can go wrong always does.

An Alberta colleague of mine in the Toronto newsroom of the Globe and Mail in the mid-1980s once japed that about the only government-funded development scheme that region of Nova Scotia hadn’t tried was building a monorail around the picturesque Bras d’Or Lake for rich European, American and Asian tourists.

“Because,” he shouted giddily, pointing an index finger to the sky, “there’s an idea that might actually work.”

Canada is vast enough and diverse enough that its various laughing stocks are never in short supply (much, of course, to our national discredit).

So, it seems odd that outside of a few bureaucratic enclaves at Industry Canada, New Brunswick has yet to receive the brunt of scorn and ridicule its sister parts of the Maritimes – such as Cape Breton – have endured for generations.

After all, as the lovely butt of other people’s jokes, it’s a perfect candidate. Even our very own native son, Donald Savoie, isn’t above cracking wise every now and then. . .sort of.

The Moncton-based economic development authority and university professor was in fine form last week as he chatted with the Saint John Telegraph-Journal’s John Chilibeck. Referring to the ticking time bomb that is the province’s aging population, Mr. Savoie invoked several figures of speech, including “waiting to explode” and “bite us very hard”, either or both which could involve “slow, painful economic death spiral.”

Whichever case may, ultimately, transpire, the economist’s main message is clear: We’re in for a whole lot of fear and loathing unless we get off our collective derrieres and grab the bull by the horns and go for the brass ring in our effort to prove that, if nothing else, academics aren’t the only members of provincial society who can mix a wicked metaphor.

His larger point, though, is that “we’ve being saying ‘no’ to a lot of economic development over several years. We can’t (here comes the jokey part) turn all of New Brunswick into a national park.”

Of course, we can’t. Apart from any other consideration, national parks cost big bucks and – in case some of us haven’t been paying attention – we don’t have even little ones. Oh, we have the trees, alright, but not the variety on which money grows.

Perhaps, then, we should go with our strengths – or, rather, turn our weaknesses into competitive advantages the way we turn lemons into lemonade.

Take one-part aging population, add one-part pristine environment, shake, then pour. Hey presto: we’ve got ourselves an instant, province-wide retirement community. Forget about merely visiting the old folks’ home. New Brunswick is the old folks’ home

If we’re shrewd, we can sell this brand all over the world to, you guessed it, rich Europeans, Americans and Asians.

See what we did there? In one dramatic swoop, we’ve boosted badly needed immigration. And – thanks to the money pouring into provincial coffers from fat, international retirement trusts and savings plans to pay for new sanitoriums, nursing homes and assisted-living facilities, and then some – we’ve solved the fiscal crisis.

But let’s not stop there. If we start building a few monorails to replace the roads nobody will soon be driving through the countryside nobody will soon be fracking we’ll manage to keep our productivity up until, of course, we all just drop dead from natural causes.

As my Alberta chum might say, “There’s an idea that might actually work.”

Indeed, what could go wrong?

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Put Moncton’s future in the hands of the willing

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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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Retooling New Brunswick’s economic engine

Resurgo, indeed!

Resurgo, indeed!

This past summer, the Petitcodiac River roared back to life, its tidal bore once more ascendent. Californian surf-boarders came to marvel at its muddy might and frolic in its frothy curl. You Tube went berserk and, for a short, sweet time, Moncton made headlines around the world.

Perhaps, then, it is fitting that the city’s largest downtown hotel, the site of the first economic summit for the municipal region in 20 years, should overlook a waterway whose resurgence holds more than metaphorical meaning. After all, it was not fate that brought back the bore after an absence of 40 years; it was us, mere mortals, who opened the causeway flood gates and kept them open.

As 300 of the community’s movers and shakers from all avenues of life prepare to assemble tonight at the Greater Moncton Economic Summit 2014, one wonders: What new gates shall they open?

Not even the event’s organizers can be sure. “We don’t know what they are going to come up with,” Ben Champoux, CEO of Enterprise Greater Moncton, told the Moncton Times & Transcript. “The tangible result is we are going to have a list of great ideas that are realistic, that are tangible, that people agree with.”

Still, why gather and why now? By every possible yardstick, the Greater Moncton  area has exceeded its own and others’ expectations over the years.

Dieppe, Moncton and Riverview currently comprise the fifth-fastest growing Census Metropolitan Area (CMA) in Canada. In fact, the region has typically attracted at least three times as many people every year than any other area in New Brunswick.

Since 1990, this CMA has added more than 25,000 jobs to its workforce. The annual unemployment rate is one of the lowest in the Atlantic region and substantially below the national average.

In Moncton, alone, home sales in 2011 reached the fourth-highest level in the city’s history. Yet, with an average house price of $158,561, the municipality remained one of the most affordable housing markets in the country.

Meanwhile, the total value of building permits issued in 2011 reached $184 million, the second highest level on record. What’s more, retail sales reached $2.1 billion in 2011, 17 per cent higher than the Canadian Cities’ average.

Then, of course, consider Greater Moncton’s formidable technology sector: major Canadian customer contact and back office operations with a robust “near-shore” IT outsourcing industry. 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.

Given the broader context of a fiscally imperiled province and a moribund national economy, Greater Moncton is not only punching above its weight class; its punching above just about everyone else’s .

So, again, why bother brainstorming?

The answer is in the question. And it has something to do with an ounce of prevention.

Summits, conventions, conferences are only marginally useful when their conveners are mired in full-blown crises. Adrenaline and cortisol may be handy hormones to have in a fight. But they are not particularly conducive to rational, creative or innovative thinking.

Greater Moncton’s relatively healthy and prosperous economy permits the sort of blue-sky musings that arc out over the horizon to destinations that remain hidden in bad times. And, of course, the whole point of an idea factory, such as Summit 2014, is to figure out how to avoid the bad times altogether.

What new gates shall open, indeed?

What fresh ideas will be brought to bear on a downtown core that has, frankly, seen better days?

What will impel municipal officials and entrepreneurs to transform the concept of a multi-use events centre into actual bricks and mortar, sooner rather than later.

As Mr. Champoux astutely notes, “The dance floor is more crowded than ever before in economic development and business development. Let’s brainstorm and and define who we are now, what we want and how we are going to get there and who is going to lead that.”

Let us, indeed. Let us begin again.

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Pointing a way forward for Atlantic Canada

Somewhere over the rainbow, a brighter future for Atlantic Canada

Somewhere over the rainbow, a brighter future for Atlantic Canada

It’s timely, cogent and thoughtful, which is exactly why it’ll never work. Human nature abhors big ideas and grand schemes, preferring, instead, to domicile stubbornly in its hobbit holes.

That’s one way to regard the final report of the 4Front Atlantic Conference, a meeting of regional business leaders that just wrapped up in Halifax.

Another is to recognize that the document contains just enough practical magic and common-sense solutions to the problems that burden Atlantic Canada’s economy to suggest that durable, sustainable prosperity in this corner of the steppe need not remain a pipe dream.

That, too, is human nature. After all, the future is about nothing if not the choices we make today.

“What can I do to make Atlantic Canada a more promising place for our children – so that they can realize their potential and their dreams, and be successful in this changing world, living and working here in Atlantic Canada?”

That’s the action plan’s “rallying cry”.

So is: this: “How do we change to prosper in a world where China and Brazil are among the global economic leaders, old trade relations are no longer enough, and all markets are global?”

And this: “How should I work with my neighbour, whether down the street or across the region, to seize these opportunities today for future generations of Atlantic Canadians?”

After three conferences and hundreds of hours examining the issues, the folks at 4Front offer a few suggestions, the most important of which is to start thinking for yourself and stop believing in governments as the fountainheads of originality. They are not. They merely reflect the broader aspirations – or lack, thereof – of those who installed them. And that’s us.

Henceforth, our concern should be aggressively collegial. The history, geography and demographics of this region precludes any degree of economic success as long as we remain siloed by our narrow, parochial interests.

We need a common approach to our common purposes.

On education and training, 4Front says: “We must create a ‘K‐to‐work’ approach, where the focus is on preparing students for the workforce of tomorrow and providing a link between formal schooling and future employers.The public education system should investigate the usage of open online courses and what this technology could mean for core K‐12 courses. We recommend an increased focus on experiential learning and co‐op placements, so that students have the chance to apply their knowledge while trying out different careers and building skills.”

On new skills: “We need dramatically higher levels of economic immigration – this can be done through a business‐government‐university‐community partnership where we are clear about the skills needed, geographic targets, and an engaged community to welcome and integrate these new Canadians.”

On innovation and productivity: “We need to significantly increase the collaboration and alignment between university and industry R&D. University research capacity should be more accessible to private companies and the private sector must engage better with universities and invest more in innovation. We need to establish an accelerator to support and mentor Atlantic Canadian emerging start‐ups, similar to Communitech in Waterloo.”

On globalization: “We must focus on strategic business sectors and global geographies where we can be globally competitive and develop a detailed regional strategic plan for each that is managed and measured. We need to help make Atlantic Canadian SMEs export ready, through ‘reverse trade missions’ where we bring international businesses to visit us and other initiatives.”

On capital: “To combat serious underfunding of Atlantic firms, we should create a regional equity‐investment tax credit. We need to create an organization that can forge stronger linkages to external networks (Silicon Valley, angel investors, Canadian VC funds, universities). We should unify our provincial securities commissions,thus eliminating the four‐tier fee structure for companies and brokers and make financing easier for our firms.”

As for governments, their watchwords should be collaboration, efficiency and relevance.

None of this is particularly new which means, if nothing else, all of it is perfectly achievable, as long as the better angels of our human nature choose to act.

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