The Conference Board of Canada is predicting that, while Eastern Canadian cities experience decline or slow growth due to their declining manufacturing base, Western Canadian cities are going to lead economic growth over coming years.
Cartoon from The Polyp
In Western Cities Lead Economic Growth Again in 2013, the Board says, “Western Canadian cities — Saskatoon, Regina, Edmonton, Calgary and Vancouver — will occupy the top five rankings in this edition of the Metropolitan Outlook.”
A brief look at Abbotsford’s leading Economic Indicators shows that Abbotsford is not likely to have its boat rise with that tide.
Due to some very bad economic planning and development decisions, some horrendous political decisions and a general inability to get its infrastructure or its finances in order, the City of Abbotsford faces a perfect storm of problems as the elusive recovery from the 2008 stock market collapse keeps receding off into the future.
Simply put; the failed practices of the past and the quick and easy solutions to kick start economic growth won’t work in a city which, a) can’t accommodate any significant economic growth, and, b) wouldn’t know what to do with it if it arrived.
During the years of general economic growth, fueled primarily but the astronomical rise in land prices in Vancouver and the restrictions on available land between the mountains of the Fraser Valley, bureaucrats and politicians in Abbotsford contented themselves with ‘managing the flow’ of businesses and residents moving to Abbotsford as though the tap would never turn off.
Rather than taking care of the boring essentials like ensuring our old water and sewer pipes could handle economic growth; ensuring our bylaws and policies were accommodating to the kinds of economic growth which would help the city; or even determining what kind of growth we wanted, our bureaucrats and politicians risked it all on one ambitious but foolhardy gamble – Plan A. Committing some $500,000,000 in hard costs, borrowed money, and long term, multi-year financial commitments (in some cases up to a decade), our leaders gambled that if we only had had a giant hockey rink the flood gates of economic growth would burst open and stay open forever.
Instead Plan A is costing taxpayers as much as $10million dollars a year; the $40 million dollar surplus was quickly used up and our Development Cost Charges DCC accounts – the very accounts need in order to allow for economic growth – are in arrears to the tune of millions of dollars.
Our taxes are the highest in the Lower Mainland and we have experienced a decade of steady decline in building permits, housing starts and real estate sales. Our unemployment rate is consistently the highest in Western Canada and the only jobs we seem capable of generating are low wage, part-time service and warehousing jobs.
This situation is made worse by the fact that, while our leaders were busy gambling away our money on a future they forgot to create, the actual future is not a world in which you want to be carrying a lot of debt or non-performing assets. Abbotsford has both … in spades.
That’s why, in the REIN Rankings, published earlier this year, Abbotsford is sinking and our neighbours (Chilliwack, Langley, Surrey …) are rising.
So What Now?
A Good Start
Our new City Manager, George Murray has made a good start. He basically removed the economic development department and removed its head who, along with the head of the bylaw department, was one of several senior bureaucrats responsible for our relentless attack on the homeless. A great many more were responsible for that ugly and repulsive strategy but that is for another column.
With proper direction Murray can get our economic development department back to doing what ought to have been being done for years – establish our current situation; determine where we want to be in five, ten and 15 years; prepare scenarios that will get us there under a variety of economic conditions and plan for as many contingencies as possible.
If we achieve that we will be on a better track than the one we’ve been on and we may yet find safer waters if the world economy collaborates.
Develop A Clear Strategy
What always seemed to elude the senior bureaucrats who used to run this city was any sense of responsibility for the choosing the kind of economic growth we want. When Jay Teichroeb was at the helm we didn’t actively seek out the kind of businesses we wanted to attract because … well … we didn’t know and we didn’t seem to care. We just managed the flow of businesses which wanted to move here, regardless of whether or not they would provide good upper middle class jobs or just more warehousing and low wage service jobs.
A clear strategy for the kinds of economic growth we want is the only way we can ensure we get the kind of economic growth we want.
Targeted Infrastructure Improvements
Our response, under the old bureaucracy, to the fact that we couldn’t afford to upgrade our dilapidated and crumbling water, sewer and roads infrastructure was to put off fixing it and build a giant hockey rink which would make sure we had the money to fix it all down the road.
I’ll let that sink in …
That, with only a smidgen of simplification, is the sum total of Abbotsford’s economic growth strategy over the last decade.
As building permits, housing starts and investment in Abbotsford tank, changing course is going to be a bitch. But change course we must.
We have to fix our infrastructure so that when Vancouver construction companies want to build subdivisions or highrises they can actually hook up to our water and sewer systems. Since we can’t afford to do the whole city we have to determine what kind of economic growth we want; where we want it; who we want to to do it and what infrastructure improvements they will require.
Then we have to spend the money to do it. Since we don’t have any money we can only reduce current spending to get some money and that leads back to one gigantic elephant in the middle of the room.
Pay Back Our Reserves
We have to stop borrowing money from ourselves in order to pretend our books are balanced. We had a surplus before John Smith, the banker, started helping us manage our money. We now have a deficit in our DCC funds and we regularly shuffle money around from one budget to another as the legal deadline for repaying ourselves arrives. Then we start the secret clock going on another loan from ourselves which has to be paid back.
No wonder John got out of banking. Even banks frown on this kind of financing.
Before we can hope to grow and prosper as a City we have to get our finances in order, get the services, the infrastructure and the employment base which the companies of the future want and need and then go out and get those companies to move here. It isn’t rocket science; it’s what well-run cities like Chilliwack, Langley and Surrey do.
Take Care of Our Poor
Until we start taking care of our citizens who have wound up living on our streets as though they were actually our fellow citizens, we will not be taken seriously by any smart business or good employer looking for a place to move. Instead of sticking our heads in the sand and refusing to face our own flawed logic, we have to learn from the cities and countries which are succeeding at helping their homeless.
If we can become the kind of city which takes care of its own, more people might find the idea of becoming an Abbotsford citizen a little more palatable.
Giving away cash and tax breaks, the way Mayor Banman approached the YMCA proposal or hiding the economic development function away from public scrutiny are not ways of of creating economic growth.
Abbotsford has the highest unemployment in Western Canada and very little other than a job at MacDonalds for our high school graduates. The only businesses which reliably move here are those attracted to the low business costs of maintaining a warehouse close to the US border and Highway 1. Warehousing and service industry jobs do not a future make for our children.
Instead of giving away the farm, borrowing against the future and offering tax incentives to businesses we should be building a community to which businesses and families want to move. Both with pay the price required to live in a properous and welcoming community. We have yet to build one.
Without facing these realities we will only fall further behind.
Cartoon from The Polyp
in case you’re wondering why ‘Polyp’?.. Well, I first got fond of the word after seeing it in an 1890 children’s book called The Sea and it’s Wonders . It just stuck in my head. Years later, as a student, I wanted a memorable pen name to use drawing cartoons for the Union paper- up popped ‘Polyp’. I’d just finished drawing the second of a set of Reagan cartoons when I found the fantastic headline below…
Polyps build coral reefs AND they’re an irritating growth up Reagan’s arse?!
What more could you want from a pen name..?
I’ve been scratching ‘Polyp’ political cartoons since 1980 (for Leeds Student Newspaper) and took it up full time in the 90’s, having been a care worker before then.
New Internationalist Magazine, bless ’em, gave me my first big break, turning over a whole issue to STARVE TREK, a political spoof of Captain James Knee Jerk beaming neoliberal politics down to reluctant planets throughout the galaxy. I owe them my career, I guess… THANK YOU, NI!
Since then I’ve drawn cartoons for anyone who’ll have me, including Ethical Consumer Magazine, WDM, Christian Aid, War on Want, The Big Issue, Friends of the Earth, FoE, Liberty, People and Planet, Campaign Against the Arms Trade, and all the other usual suspects.
As for my politics… well… read the cartoons, chuck in some chunks of Bill Hicks, radical democracy, direct action, the co-operative movement, Karl Popper: then stir and then give it your best guess…
I’m very active in the skeptics movement, taking both an anti religion stance, and one against psuedoscience –particularly where it collides with my political beliefs.
If you’re feeling a desperate urge to write to me and instruct me to OPEN MY EYES TO THE TRUTH ABOUT 9/11 and then ask me petulant self righteous questions about HOW CAN YOU DEBUNK THIS then don’t bother. I don’t debate creationist conspiracy advocates, so why would I debate you, given that you use the same tactics as them, and are as unlikely to ever change your mind?
Plus there’s the absurd reaction we got to this debate, staged in the wake of the above article. After whining about New World Order censorship, these fuckwits then blocked me from commenting on the youtube page for the debate: a debate which they’d participated in, helped promote, filmed and then posted. Blocked from responding to a debate in which you’re one of the two key speakers? It doesn’t get more pathetic than that.
My first book BIG BAD WORLD came out in 2002 and had a 2003 reprint – would love to direct you to a place where you can buy one, but they’re all sold now. A web search might find you one..?
My second book was published in September 2009, SPEECHLESS: a cartoon history of the world. I write all abouthow it came to be written and published on the SPEECHLESS website. You can buy it here.
The latest graphic novel explores the history of the Co-operative movement, it’s spread across the globe, the science of Co-operation within natural systems, and then takes a glimpse at an optimistic world of 2044. It is available here from New Internationalist.
Originally published Oct 1, 2013. Updated Oct 17, 2014