Declining Influence Of Chamber, ADBA

By January 19, 2015Issues

Why it’s a good thing the Abbotsford Chamber of Commerce and the Abbotsford Downtown Business Association now have less influence over City Hall

By Mike Archer. It is no secret that the executive of the Abbotsford Chamber of Commerce and the executive of the Abbotsford Downtown Business Association (ADBA) held a great deal of influence in Abbotsford until the recent municipal election which saw a new mayor and four new councillors elected, all of whom made no secret of their disapproval of the old boys network which once held so much sway at City Hall.

Neither organization has nearly as much influence as they once did and if you talk to anyone at City Hall or even in the development community it is a very good thing that unelected, self-interested lobby groups have been shown the door.

It isn’t that they have no influence. Such organizations should play a part in the consultation of any municipal government. But they represent a small portion of the business community which has its own agenda and should only be heard by politicians and the community at large in a way that matches their limited importance.

The amount of influence these un-elected individuals and organizations hold has changed dramatically since the November 15 electuion.

Former ADBA president and director of the Abbotsford Dignitarian Society Paul MacLeod bragged about his ability to get things done at City Hall to the point of telling anyone who would listen that he was known around Abbotsford City Hall as ‘No-Permit-Paul.’

It’s a cute story.

Bad For Business

But it’s really bad for business. In fact; it is a large part of the reason many developers simply gave up on Abbotsford over the last decade or so. Not only does Abbotsford not have the infrastructure to support economic growth, we had, until this year, a network of local business people and organizations which had convinced politicians they actually spoke for the business community.

Some of the most powerful and longest serving councillors in Abbotsford actually believed that these people and organizations spoke for the business community.

Well … they didn’t.

They spoke for a very small and peculiar breed of business within Abbotsford business community.

Over the last 25 years I have been a member of half a dozen chambers of commerce and every single one shared one primary feature. The active membership and executive was made up of small business owners looking for someone to whom they could sell their business services or products. In other words; most of the membership was there to develop clients and relationships … networking.

Obviously there are exceptions. But, by and large, even though large companies most certainly do join local chambers of commerce, they stick to paying their dues on time and attending as few meetings as they can.

Those who rise to the top of these organizations are not necessarily visionary, nor do they necessarily have any understanding of city planning, economics, municipal infrastructure requirements, taxation or how to build communities.

That is the role of politicians and other community leaders.

The ability to turn a profit on a small business by cornering the market through local networking and influence is not necessarily the kind of leadership a city the size of Abbotsford requires.

While successful politicians inevitably end up thinking of their community in terms of blocks of voters, it is a practice which leads away from, rather than towards, good decision-making. Abbotsford has suffered from this sort of thinking for far too long.

It leads politicians down a road towards easy but faulty decision-making.

Faulty Decision-Making

  • Would a gigantic hockey rink be a good idea? Let’s ask ‘the business community.’
  • Should Abbotsford taxpayers fund an organization like Tradex, which never turns a profit, relies on average taxpayers to bail it out and benefits only a very small number of businesses? Let’s ask ‘the business community.’
  • Should the average Abbotsford taxpayer financially guarantee that a gigantic, out-of-town sports empire will not lose money by investing in Abbotsford? Let’s ask ‘the business community.’

You can see where I’m going with this …

  1. Why would you give ‘the business community’ any more say than the community at large in such questions?
  2. … and,

  3. When what you erroneously believe to be ‘the business community’ is made up of a small group of small businesses, many of which stand to benefit from a ‘yes’ answer to the question, why would you rely on their answer as though it gave you any truly useful information as to whether or not what you are considering make sense?

The best evidence for the failure of this approach can be seen in the track record of the last three administrations and the positions taken by the Chamber and/or the ADBA on the big issues.

  1. Plan A – YES
  2. Abbotsford Entertainment & Sports Centre – YES
  3. New Water Supply –YES
  4. Abbotsford Heat Contract – YES
  5. Criminalization of Homelessness – YES
  6. BC Housing/ACS Low Barrier Housing Proposal – NO

Building A Community

The biggest argument for the new position of lesser influence held by the old boys’ network has to do with our Official Community Plan (OCP) and our relationship with the development community.

Developers like nothing better than knowing the rules. A good developer, when presented with the details about a community, its demographics, its business community and its planning process, can usually tell you in short order whether or not he or she can make money in that community.

Some developers prefer to do whatever they can to gain an advantage by being friends with the men and women at City Hall but most will tell you they prefer to operate in an open market where everybody has a chance to make money while building a great community.

With our new council, combined with the changes to the planning process and the zoning bylaw accomplished by City Manager George Murray and the planning department, there is a great deal of hope that Abbotsford will finally begin to attract good developers with good plans for our community so that together we can build a bright future.

As long as the rules remain clear; the playing field even, and everyone has access to the politicians and public servants in an open and fair process, we should be able to avoid some of the disasters which have befallen us under the last few administrations.

The business community must play a part in the economic growth of any city. The most constructive way for them to do that is not through undue or improper influence which enables a few of them to make money at the expense of the rest and the community as a whole.

The way for them to do that is to participate in an open planning process where their advice is sought and appreciated and where their voice is understood for what it is.

For too long a small group of self-interested business people have spoken for the Abbotsford Chamber of Commerce and the ADBA as though they represented their membership as cohesive blocks of voters who would do as they were told by their executives.

A Clean Start

The election of Henry Braun as mayor and the AbbotsfordFirst councillors who stood for change is proof positive you don’t need the support of the Abbotsford Chamber of Commerce or the ADBA executive to get elected in Abbotsford.

Many of the member businesses of both organizations have begun to speak up in recent months about their dissatisfaction with being lumped together and spoken about as though they were an unthinking monolithic organization which agreed wholeheartedly with the four or five men and women who had a privileged position at the head of their organizations and with the politicians at City Hall.

If the Chamber of Commerce and the ADBA are going to retain any semblance of their previous positions of power and influence in the community, a new generation of leaders is going to have to take hold of both organizations and bring them in line with the new council and the new community it represents.

Let council also beware. We’ve seen what damage an old boys’ network can do to a city. We don’t want to simply change the names of the cronies with access to the public trough. We want an end to the practice of undue influence by un-elected individuals and organizations … period.

Mayor Braun has made a good start with his complete re-structuring of the committee system and a changing of the guard both at the top and in the membership of those committees.

We can only hope that the Chamber and ADBA membership demand better from the executive of their respective organizations in their attempts at proximity to and control over the public agenda in Abbotsford. Though certainly diminished, their influence is nonethless essential to a properly functioning city.

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