By Mike Archer. As boring as it may sound, one of the most important things governing how money gets spent and misspent and how influence gets brandished and exercised in Abbotsford is actually open for public involvement over the next 18 months.
If you don’t like paying taxes and water rates that are higher than the rest of the Fraser Valley and have doubled in the last six years; if you don’t like the fact that you’ve received nothing for those increases; if you wonder why your children can’t find any better than a warehousing or fast-food industry job; if you wonder why some businesses seem to do very well while the rest of the business community has trouble making a profit … look no further than the OCP.
Abbotsford’s updated Official Community Plan (OCP) needs to address a few critical issues which have helped to cripple economic growth over the last decade and which threaten smart economic growth over the coming decades. With the damages done by John Smith’s Plan A and the multi-generational costs associated with it, we are more in need of smart economic growth now than we were before he tried his hand at it and failed miserably.
Put bluntly; if you invested in Abbotsford in the last decade and-a-half (and if you bought a house, that’s what you did) in all likelihood, your investment has not increased much in value. In fact, there’s a good chance it has decreased in value.
Citizens will have opportunities over the next 18 months for “to have direct input on how Abbotsford will grow and develop as a community in coming years,” according to the mayor. We should all take advantage of the opportunity if we are ever to get out of the endless cycle of incompetence, remedial incompetence and overall bad decision-making which has characterized the planning process in Abbotsford for so long.
The first of those issues is desperation.
For more than a decade Abbotsford’s approach to long term economic growth has been short term desperation. After years of economic inactivity (while neighbouring communities were growing); petty, small-town treatment of businesses wanting to re-locate to Abbotsford only to be met by an enforcement mentality rather than a welcoming attitude; a conservative unwillingness to spend money on infrastructure (or just about anything); and rank incompetence at the highest levels of the economic development department, have led to a willingness to accept any deal, provide any incentive, bend any rule just in order to have somebody move their business here.That desperation led us to the multi-generational economic disaster which was Councillor John Smith’s Plan A – an attempt to risk the accumulated value and future resources of Abbotsford citizens and taxpayers on one gigantic gamble. Smith, who never tires of telling people he used to be a banker, ignored all of the evidence and arguments against him, used his political muscle to push the Plan forward despite the lack of even a rudimentary business plan and ended up costing his friends and neighbours hundreds of millions of dollars as we watched the plan come apart and dissolve into abject failure – a failure for which we will be paying for years.
On a smaller scale, our desperation has showed itself in our willingness to provide tax relief and breaks to businesses like the High Street Mall and other businesses which are prepared to overlook the economic indicators and take a gamble of Abbotsford. The results have not been good as, one after another, businesses have moved to Abbotsford only to either close several years later having failed to achieve the financial results they expected, or succeed and cause the closure and removal of an established business which was doing fine until a competitor entered the market.
Because no matter what the glossy brochures and assumptions of perpetual growth and good news spewing out of City Hall and the media the facts are that, except for a few rich farming families whose land once belonged to the natives, Abbotsford is fundamentally a minimum-wage, low-income town filled with people who work elsewhere and are having trouble making all of their monthly payments.
Not a lot of extra disposable income to spend on luxuries or entertainment here. So we give tax breaks to high end retailers and encourage restaurants and tourist accommodations to lose money and pay minimum wages kids who haven’t the education to find better work elsewhere.
Another result of the desperation with which we have approached economic development has been an uncanny and almost universal willingness to bend the rules, go against the OCP, provide exemptions, and fast track developments with no regard for our own bylaws and procedures. We can’t claim the moral high ground on crime if we can’t obey our own laws.
Simply put: our economic development strategy has been one of desperation born of incompetence and, if the updated OCP is to have any chance to working, we must first put an end to the culture of desperation which has ruled at City Hall for the last three administrations or more.
Inconsistency And An Inability To Obey Our Own Laws
The entire purpose of an OCP is to provide a reliable, consistent, broadly-based and accepted vision for growth in a city.
Without an effective OCP, and an ability to abide by it, a city ends up in the kind of rancourous bullying, pushing and shoving, unexplainable decision-making and disjointed tactics which reveal the lack of any overall strategy and, ultimately, an uneven playing field.
In such an atmosphere, individuals who either have or claim access, responsibility or power tend to rise to the surface and can have undue influence over the whole process and decisions can begin reflecting the interests of a few rather than the needs of the community as a whole.
Unless the updated OCP has some teeth in which will force future administrators and politicians to actually follow the rules, we will continue to flail away in a sea of self-interest and bad public policy.
Upzoning is one of the easiest, most cost-effective and simplest ways for landowners to make money off of their properties. Moving land through the zoning process from agricultural to industrial, industrial to commercial, commercial to residential is a process which leads to an increase in the value of the land in question.
Burnaby mayor Derrick Corrigan recently described it well in a piece in BC Business Magazine.“In the past, Corrigan says, industrial land owners and developers have been more than happy to “up-zone” industrial land to commercial and residential use for fat profits. “Taking land out of the ALR is a massive temptation, and the biggest profit to be made is by developers in changing the use of land,” Corrigan says. Now some are trumpeting an industrial land crisis in hopes of cashing in again, he alleges. (Metro Vancouver statistics appear to support that “up-zoning” does occur: Metro Vancouver reports that between July 2011 and December 2013 about 40 hectares of industrial land were lost to other uses.)”
Corrigan goes on to opine that smarter use of industrial land will be a much more effective solution to the expected industrial land shortage in the Lower Mainland.
“The best solution to scarcity of industrial land lies in using our existing industrial space better, says Burnaby mayor Derrick Corrigan. “The old idea that it is for vast parking lots on acres of land, just isn’t acceptable,” he says. “We have to have more intensive uses of those industrial lands and we have to be more aggressive to be sure we’re maximizing the use.””
Changing of the Guard
While the cronyism which appears to have just become an accepted part of business and politics in Abbotsford, has probably been made worse by our scattered, informal and wobbly adherence to our own rules, it is perhaps the make-up of the all important City committees, where the real business of the City of Abbotsford gets done, which must change if new rules will have any chance of fixing what is broken in the OCP.
It was one of the first things Bruce Banman said he was going to do once he became mayor and one of the first promises on which he reneged. At his first council meeting he announced that, for the sake of continuity, he would be keeping the same committees and committee chairs as before the election.
Elections aren’t about continuity. Elections are about change.
When the same men and women from the development community, the hospitality business, the Chamber of Commerce and the political community continue, administration after administration, to fill the all-important seats on the committees and boards which decide upon the real economic direction the City takes (Economic Development, Industry, Agriculture, Airport Authority) we risk continuing the process which has led us where we are.
Some new faces are required at the helm and on the membership of the committees, boards and authorities which actually run the local economy. There should be term limits and a lifetime cap on the number of committee appointments any individual can apply for and hold.
Proximity to an issue such as development or tourism by virtue of the fact you make money from it does not necessarily make one an expert on the best interests of the community at large. It may simply provide the inside track to individuals and companies who should be kept at a respectable distance from the center of power when it comes to decisions which will affect them, sometimes to the possible detriment of the average citizen or the taxpayer who is footing the bill.
And make no mistake; these people have screwed up royally when it comes to economic development in the last decade and a half. A look at the economic indicators (which the local media has never published except when the statistics made City politicians look good) tell the tale of economic growth in Abbotsford.
While Abbotsford taxes and water rates have risen dramatically since John Smith’s Plan A, neither services nor quality of life have increased one iota. Our taxes and water rates have doubled with nothing to show for it. Our infrastructure – the biggest hindrance to economic growth in Abbotsford – remains fundamentally the same as it was in 1995. We’ve borrowed money to deal with a few emergencies but, by and large, our inferior water and sewer pipes cannot continue to meet current demand much less accommodate any serious economic growth .
Glossy brochures, cute names for consultations you hope no one will attend and deciding to move the economic development function behind closed doors and away from public scrutiny (Rewarding Failure – Banman’s Economic Action Plan) are not actions which do anything to provide good jobs at good businesses, real increases in economic growth, or public trust in a broken process.
Our unemployment remains the highest in Western Canada; our housing starts and building permit values betray a real estate and development community which has been asleep for years; and investment in Abbotsford has been on a steady downward slide for years.
Those to whom we’ve entrusted the stewardship of our community have done a piss poor job of looking after our interests.
Ignoring these truths is not in our interest.Whatever the people who have monopolized the jobs, committee and advisory board positions governing the local economy have been doing over the last ten or 12 years – it ain’t working. They should get out of the way and let someone else give it a try.
The appearance of conflict has to be removed. Anybody who stands to benefit from sitting on committees and board of the City should simply not be allowed on them. Period.
Most importantly – the public needs to get involved. Most of the people who have broken Abbotsford have been able to do so because not enough people pay attention to what is being done in their name, with their money.
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