Strat Plan Part 4: Economic Vitality

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CartoonstockWhat, you may ask, is meant by the term “Economic Vitality” – the third objective in our town’s strategic-plan-in-the-works? Apparently it’s one of those motherhood statements people make on soapboxes and campaign platforms that have little grist in them to mill into actuality.

Sure, we all want a town that has a lively, thriving economy. but how do we achieve it? No one has an answer – not one-size-fits-all answer. certainly it isn’t found in the woo-hoo strategic plan. The economy’s health depends on creating a suitable, supportive environment that both attracts and sustains business and commerce.

Let’s start with an understanding that governments do not create private sector jobs. They can only create an environment where the private sector feels it worth the investment to do so. And the cost of doing business in a town plays a major role in that decision (i.e. low taxes and low utility fees).

Last term, council’s collective attitude towards business and keeping taxes low saw much growth and development: Goodall expanded, the glass plant expanded, Pilkington Glass added shifts. New restaurants and bars opened. Three microbreweries opened. The mall was revitalized with new stores and shopping opportunities. Cranberry Mews mall grew.  it was a boom time.

The previous council can’t take credit for private growth and expansions: what it can take credit for is being welcoming, supportive and keeping taxes and utility rates as low as possible. Last council also initiated the hiring of a new, dynamic marketing and economic development director, and created a new small business centre that brought together a wide range of community partners and NGOs to work together cooperatively and successfully for common goals.

Yet I hear you say that our current council went against this grain right off the bat by raising taxes and water rates while giving themselves a pay hike – making the town less attractive to business (and making themselves look avaricious and petty). That’s pretty anti-business!

So, you ask, how can they say they want economic vitality when council is deliberately undermining this goal? That’s a bit of a conundrum. The overtly anti-business attitude of this council is a hurdle that will not be easily overcome until the next election. They have created the reputation that Collingwood is closed for business. It will not easily be reversed.

Also, word on the street says this council is poised to divest itself of the airport – one of the few actual economic success stories in Collingwood. Council has already irrevocably damaged the once-good relationship with our municipal neighbours who are partners at the airport to the point Wasaga Beach is planning to pull its financial support. Instead of developing this as a regional success story and promoting it, council will destroy it like it did our utility service board.

So let’s examine the goals and proposed action items in the strategic plan that relate to economic vitality. Try not to guffaw too loudly.


Dilbert

Goal: Attract target industries to Collingwood

Sure that sounds great, but not only does every municipality in Ontario have the same desire, but everyone is losing the battle. industries have been pouring out of Ontario – and especially out of small towns for the past 30 years.

Do these people think they can recall a plant after it’s closed and moved operations to China or Mexico?  Over the past decade, Ontario lost 300,000 manufacturing jobs. They’re not coming back. And even if they did, the provincial growth plan wants them to locate along the Highway 400 corridor, not up here.

And how can a municipality attract any industry when other provinces have lower hydro rates, and other municipalities have lower taxes and utility bills? You can’t offer tax breaks or free land or other benefits: the Municipal Act specifically prohibits any sort of bonusing that might lure an industry.

The best solution would be to lower taxes and utility bills for everyone – that way both business and potential employees would find us attractive. But no, this council chose to do the opposite. Why not make Collingwood less attractive for industry they asked themselves…

What is more likely to be attracted to town – and are completely overlooked here – are businesses and services that cater to 1) tourism and 2) health care. Both fit our visitor profile and greying demographics. But this group didn’t even consider them. I cannot explain this gaping hole in their vision, nor their loss of touch with the reality that is Collingwood.

Goal: Increased support for small businesses and entrepreneurs

Done by the previous council last term with the creation of the small business centre. Why don’t these people know that? A simple visit to the centre would explain so much about what is already done and what is planned. This centre is already miles ahead of what other municipalities do and very successful. Maybe some of these people should have dropped by to ask about it.

What sort of support? Buying more at local stores? Reducing business taxes? Or just mouthing platitudes at the council table?

Goal: Support youth education and career planning.

What, try to take over the role and the authority of the boards of education? Council has no authority in education. The town has no resources, no tools and, more importantly, no money to educate youth. Who at town hall is qualified to even discuss teaching or career training?

All the town can do is work collaboratively with schools and boards of education – under their guidance and funding. Our business development centre is already exploring collaboration with these agencies. Had anyone thought to ask, they would have known this.

What support is being requested? Financial? Moral? Free skateboards?

Goal: Ensure a range of housing types and tenure options.

Already attempted and has been attempted for years. The two big problems the town faces are 1) affordable housing is a county mandate: it controls the funding and allocation of affordable units and 2) the town cannot force a developer to build a particular type of building. If a property is zoned, a developers can build anything permitted by that zoning. There is little to no incentive to build inexpensive housing or apartments and municipalities cannot bonus developers for doing so.

You cannot “ensure” a range of housing types: you can only create the zoning and official plan rules that allow a range. Neither the Municipal Act nor the Planning Act offer any means to force developers to build a particular type of dwelling.

ACTION ITEM: Support and monitor the Town’s Economic Development Strategy.

Yawn. Of course. That’s hardly a new item when it’s already part of the process. That’s like saying it’s an action item to tie your shoe laces after putting your shoes on before leaving the house. The marketing and economic director already monitors his own strategy.

The last council initiated this plan as well as the hiring of the staff and creation of the business development centre. I suppose we  should be thankful this group wants to support it, even though they don’t seem to know much if anything about it.

What is support? Waving the flag? Egregiously mentioning during budget time? getting your picture taken in the media when a cheque is presented? Or just mouthing platitudes?

ACTION ITEM: Ensure implementation of the Asset Management Plan, including plans and financing for new infrastructure, so that it is available to meet the needs of the business community.

See above: the whole point of the plan – as initiated by the previous council – is implementation. Do these people think plans are made and then discarded? Perhaps because theirs will be, they assume they all suffer the same fate.

But they have it wrong: the town doesn’t pay for the business community’s infrastructure: the business community does. If someone wants to open a business or a factory that isn’t in an already-serviced area, it is up to them to pay the costs to bring servicing there. This is also true of new residential developments. Growth pays for growth, not the general taxpayer.

And what mechanism exists to ensure anything? And by whom? What good is an action item when it’s so full of holes?

ACTION ITEM: Explore opportunities to provide financial incentives to small business owners, such as through a Community Improvement Plan. This may be integrated with Objective #2.

See above. Under the Municipal Act, municipalities cannot bonus any business. Period. It’s against the law. And the Community Improvement Plan was specifically designed to fund public facilities and infrastructure. It has no provision for financing private business.

However there are financial plans and incentives available to private businesses and they can learn all about them – even apply for them – in our business development centre. It is up to those business to apply, not up to the town to do it for them. Had anyone asked, they would have known this service has been offered since we opened the centre.

It’s sad that this group is unaware of that. But then this line doesn’t actually suggest acting: only exploring “opportunities.” That way it looks like council is doing something when they’re really just sitting on their hands.

ACTION ITEM: Explore opportunities to grow local agri-business.

See above about bonusing. What agri-business? There’s precious little agricultural land left in town and the vast majority of it is owned by developers waiting to turn it into cookie-cutter subdivisions. You can’t force them to become farmers.

And why single out agri-business? of all the businesses and services in Collingwood, it is the smallest. What about tourism? Culture? Events? Health care? Those are all vastly larger sectors and employ many more people.

How can you explore something that doesn’t exist?

ACTION ITEM: Support opportunities to hold career fairs as a means of informing young people about career paths and opportunities.

See above about education. The town is not the appropriate vehicle for education. At best it can work collaboratively with boards of education and schools like Georgian College. Just don’t forget that as per section one: no more debt, so the town shouldn’t be spending its money to do what the schools or boards are created to do.

But in case you wonder: yes, our business development centre already cooperates with schools on this sort of project.

Support how? By clapping at events? By putting a flag in front of town hall? By attending a golf fundraiser? Or just mouthing platitudes? And what are you supporting? Just the opportunities it says – not the actual events themselves.

ACTION ITEM: Encourage discussion between Georgian College and groups that deal with youth to increase awareness of career opportunities and facilitate mentorships and/or workforce apprenticeships.

Already part of the college’s mandate and they have programs in place for this. And our business development centre already works with them.

Didn’t anyone think to ask them first? Didn’t they ever see the photos in the paper of our MP congratulating apprentices on their graduation last year?

Encouraging discussion isn’t actually discussing anything with anyone. It’s a substitute for action, not action itself.

ACTION ITEM: Review opportunities to encourage the construction of housing types that are reasonably priced and provide a range of tenure options through the planning/development process.

See above: you can’t force anyone to build anything just because you think it’s a good idea. You can only make the zoning broad enough that it permits a wider range of types, and you can do little things like reduce setbacks and parking requirements to boost density. But if the developer wants to build single-family dwellings, you can’t make them build something else.

How can a municipality create ‘tenure options‘? Housing in this community already has the same range of tenure options every other municipality offers and they are determined between owners and banks, landlords and tenants. All of them in the private sector. The municipality has no role and no authority in these private negotiations.

Reviewing something to look for opportunities (which may not be present) isn’t actually doing something. It’s just reading.

ACTION ITEM: Engage community groups to define measures to improve access to reasonably priced housing, particularly for seniors and young families.

Another I-didn’t-know-that item. There are already community groups that deal with housing, that find affordable places, that work with landlords and tenants. Georgian Housing has an office right in the Arlington building, main floor. Why didn’t they just stop there and ask what they did before making it an action item to tell them to do it?

I love reports that use bafflegab like “engage community groups.” No direction on how to engage them – no plan to actually do something, just the vague “engage.”
Dilbert

This fluff is all they could drum up for economic vitality? The glaring omissions are more telling than what is included and the level of ignorance about laws, bonusing and even what our own business development centre does is appalling. This isn’t a plan or a vision for our economic future: it’s an embarrassment floundering around trying to look busy.

Where is the hospitality sector? Health sector? The creative economy? Using events and festivals as economic drivers? The economic importance of the waterfront? The goal to keep taxes and utility rates low so as to be competitive? Where is the retail sector and the impact of big box outlets on downtown core business?

Where is strengthening the relationship between the town and the BIA and Chamber of Commerce? Oh yes, this council became the first in Ontario not to put a representative on the BIA board of management. That pretty much sums up the collective let-them-eat-cake attitude this council has towards the economic vitality of the downtown. A council that actually cared about the downtown would put $40,000 towards marketing and promoting the downtown instead of giving it to Councillor Kathy “Senator” Jeffrey to fly around the country and party at taxpayer expense.

Sadly this section, like the others before it, is just more woo-hoo. How much are we paying for this?

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