By Mike Archer. When reading The Mayor’s Economic development Action Plan, the result of Mayor Banman’s Task Force on the Economy, one is left wondering just how long we are going to go on using the same failed approach to economic development which has gutted our reserves and brought the local economy to its knees.
In terms of the theoretical reasons for having such a Task Force or writing such a report (assuming they weren’t purely political) it appears to be either as empty as the thinking it’s members used to get us where we are today or a cynical attempt to reward well connected members of the business community and Abbotsford political power structure.
A careful look at the makeup of the Task Force reveals the same people who were task force members on City in the Country Plan, the Agricultural Action Plan, and of course, were heavily involved in promoting Plan A. Why the Mayor would ask the very same people who gave us the current crisis to get us out of it is beyond me.
As Einstein said: “You cannot fix a problem with same thinking used to create the problem.”
The Same People Who Brought You Abbotsford’s Economic Crisis
No wonder the Chamber of Commerce approves of it … they wrote it. The task force responsible for the report is made up of the same people who gave us Plan A, depleted our DCC funds, deferred the infrastructure improvements needed before any real economic growth can occur and built us a giant money-sucking hockey arena and two overpasses we shouldn’t have had to pay for.
It is worth asking why the Task Force was made up of people responsible for supporting and cheerleading all of the decisions which have ruined the City’s finances. The Chamber of Commerce has a perfect record of being on the wrong side of every decision the City has made over the last decade. They have virtually brought the City to its knees with projects designed to help their members and which have almost universally failed to do so.
Other than the make up of the Task Force a few things stand out in the report.
- “Build on Abbotsford’s unique foundation” – Among the reports objectives, building on Abbotsford’s unique foundation is the first and yet what is “unique” about Abbotsford’s “foundation” is never explained. If the report is referring to the City’s agricultural history it is virtually silent on initiatives to help farmers other than a thinly-veiled attempt to help a few specific landowners and business owners to get around the OCP by building an ‘agri-business’ mall in a residentialy zoned area.
- Provide comprehensive land use plans – Good idea but isn’t that already in the Official Community Plan (OCP) for which council provides exemptions at virtually every public hearing. If the development community is going to use the Mayor’s Economic Development Action Plan to re-write the OCP by the backdoor, citizens who are concerned about creeping re-zoning and major changes to the City’s future without approval of the community should be very concerned.
- Transit improvements – A worthy goal and excellent addition to the City’s plans. The fact that it focuses on the lands around the airport is either a sign that, after 20 years it has finally dawned on the City that it has no bus service the airport, or, those who have been buying up the land around the airport for future development have managed to put the taxpayers on the hook to help build their businesses. One of the major aspects of this report is that the taxpayers should support developers at the airport – this despite a promise made by the City when we bought the airport that it would never cost taxpayers a dime. Sounds like, as usual, the land owners and developers have, once again, found a way to get our politicians to commit their friends’ and neighbours’ money to helping them reduce risk and increase certainty in their business plans. A closer look at who owns the airport lands and their connections to the City of Abbotsford, the Chamber of Commerce and the power structure of Abbotsford is clearly in order
- Education – A whole section of the report is devoted to using our educational institutions to create a workforce for the industries which the owners of the airport lands want to attract to their properties. While it is tempting to warp our educational institutions to fulfill the goals of rich property owners, it is a dangerous and slippery slope down which to slide. Our educational institutions should not be considered suppliers of manpower to the Chamber of Commerce or private landowners. They should be geared towards educating our young people so that they may benefit the most from that education. These are public institutions, financed by the taxpayer. They are not privately-funded institutions to be manipulated by the rich. If we want to move away from the Canadian education model, that is a discussion to be entered into with other jurisdictions. Neither the Abbotsford School Board nor the City of Abbotsford have any jurisdiction in setting, approving or denying curriculum in our schools.
- Revitalization Tax Exemption – Enough with the tax breaks. We have tried providing ten year tax breaks, reduced taxes, we’ve even provided taxpayer guarantees that businesses won’t lose money if they come to Abbotsford. What has it given us? The highest unemployment in Western Canada; a steep and steady decline in building permits and business investment and a City which is so much in debt it can’t afford to provide the basic infrastructure needed for real economic growth. Tax breaks for business, strategic or not, have to stop. Unless we build a City where businesses want to locate, because it is a well-run city … not because it is cheap … we will continue on the same downward spiral.
- Establish a development corporation – Perhaps the most controversial – and dangerous – proposal in this report is the suggestion Abbotsford should create a separate body which will be beyond public scrutiny and beyond the legal requirements of disclosure which provide what limited evidence we have of what gifts our City is using to entice businesses to the area or reward those already here. Chilliwack (CEPCO) has benefited from removing economic development from public view by attracting some questionable employers – known as toxic employers by Employment Canada – and, most recently, a toxic waste site right in the middle of a swamp beside the Fraser River. Abbotsford requires more public disclosure and oversight over the business approval process … not less.
Like most initiatives in the City of Abbotsford over the last decade or more, Bruce Banman’s Economic Development Action Plan seems more designed to reward politically connected land owners, developers and business organizations than to provide any sort of long term strategy to deal with the facts of our economic circumstances.
The report doesn’t even mention the fact that the biggest reason the development community skips Abbotsford on its way to communities where it can make money (unless we offer free taxes, money-back guarantees or other ludicrous incentives) is that our water and sewer infrastructure simply can’t accommodate any more growth. Without a plan to stop the annual process of deferring infrastructure improvements we desperately need, any economic action plan is destined to fail.
A Complete Disregard For Facts, Economic Indicators Or Reality
The people who created the current current economic crisis in Abbotsford have refused to spend money earmarked for infrastructure improvements on infrastructure improvements in favour of vanity projects like the Abbotsford Entertainment and Sports Centre (AESC) financial guarantees, decades worth of tax breaks or any of a bevy of other incentives to make up for the fact that the City they have built cannot accommodate economic growth.
The fact that the same people who brought the local economy to its knees have been charged with fixing their blunders is perhaps the most problematic facet of this report.
Abbotsford has been rewarding failure long enough.
Providing tax incentives, public money and other advantages to a specific group of landowners and developers at the airport – when we were promised the taxpayer would never have to spend a dime on it when we purchased it – is simply the extension of a cruel joke on the taxpayers.
Pretending that we have the jurisdiction or the right to bend our educational institutions to help those same rich landowners attract industries to their property is highly questionable.
It Doesn’t Even Acknowledge Our Debt Or The Money Pit On King Road
The other major reality the action plan refuses to acknowledge is the City’s debt, which Banman has unwisely promised to pay off by 2016. Any economic action plan which does not at the very least mention our debt and long term financial commitments isn’t really worth the expensive paper on which it was printed.
The fact the plan skips over the millions of dollars leaking out of the local economy into the pockets of the Calgary Flames and Philadelphia-based Global Spectrum and avoids coming up with even a suggestion of how to deal with it betrays an unwillingness to deal with any of the few gigantic issues which are slowly strangling the local economy.
How can anyone seriously suggest an action plan which doesn’t address the annual massive drain on the treasury represented by the AESC, the Abbotsford Heat, or the massive long term debt and financial obligations which have been the result of suggestions, decisions and proposals from the same group of people who are now ignoring their own horrendous mistakes in a document purportedly written to fix those errors.
Banman’s suggestion that we take the whole process even further behind closed doors than it already is should be greeted with great concern since most of our current problems are the result of plans and decisions that were either cooked up or made behind closed doors.
The economic indicators which real developers and business owners study before moving anywhere have demonstrated a consistent, steady and alarming decline over the last three civic administrations specifically because those in charge have been in over their heads and because local powerful business interests have been allowed to run free with taxpayer funds.
Due to our inability to focus on the real basics of economic growth (or find someone who can explain them to us) we have relied on asking powerful local business interests to tell us what they want. As a result, a few, well connected local business owners and developers are doing very well for themselves while anybody considering moving here demands huge tax breaks before they will even consider Abbotsford as a destination. Just look at the record for business and industrial investment in Abbotsford over the last decade – it will make you weep. Being well connected shouldn’t be the major criteria for doing well in a community. If it is, the community slowly dies while the well-connected make out like bandits.