A Great Opportunity – Part 1

Perhaps it is just me, but the news in London over past few weeks has been particularly telling and certainly concerning.  Our local media coverage continues to be dominated by coverage of four significant issues still confronting our city – our employment rate, the housing crunch, an ever-expanding drug problem, and ongoing transportation challenges.

These are the same four issues that dominated last year’s municipal election, and the same four issues that routinely arise in conversations on social media, around the office water cooler and at coffee shops across town.  And while some progress has been made, the problems clearly have gotten worse and the consequences are more visible than ever.

The most recent example of this continued distress was with this week’s announcement by McDonald’s Restaurant that it plans to cease operations at its downtown location at month-end.  During the election, I came to know the owner of this establishment and became familiar with his business philosophy and operation.  They are a solid organization with long standing roots in the downtown and an impressive group of dedicated, caring employees.  And while the owner has been careful not to cast blame on anyone and anything, I am aware from past conversations that this operation has struggled with many of the same challenges now consuming merchants throughout the core, namely, a considerable number of ongoing transportation/construction impediments, continued pockets of urban blight, and, most notably, the seemingly  relentless swell in the number of our citizens wrestling with drug addiction, poverty and homelessness.  Regardless of one’s feeling about this latter issue, the increase in the number of our most vulnerable now populating the downtown is definitely having an adverse impact on the residents, businesses, employees, patrons, and tourists that live, work shop and visit the centrepiece of our city.

Moreover, the McDonald’s closing, as with any business that cease operations, has the dual consequence of putting even more people out of work at a time when every job counts in our city, and reducing our ability to service our social safety net through lost tax revenue.

I have maintained since the outset of my blog two years ago, that the prioritization and dogged pursuit of jobs and investment is the only way London is going to generate the resources necessary to support the lifestyle we expect of our city, and address the social challenges confronting it.

And while I felt some sense of urgency before, I now believe that our city needs to be moving even faster and more aggressively towards tackling these challenges right now, not just to arrest the collateral damage they might create, but

  • to seize the opportunity to bring our community together,  
  • to focus on a common goal towards a collective good,
  • to build something that not just resolves our issues but defines our city for the next generation.

So what do we do about it.

I have a number of near-term and longer-term suggestions, including some that may seem a bit controversial. I shall share them in Part 2 of this blog post in the coming days.

However, before getting too deep into specific initiatives, we need to first agree on some overall assumptions and overarching principles that will help guide our decision-making in the weeks and months to come.

  1. We have a problem, and specifically an employment problem that we can and must fix.

First. let’s agree that (i) we have some significant issues before us, especially on the jobs front and, more importantly, (ii) we have the ability to solve them.  London trails every major city in the country in labour participation rates – badly. This signals that far too many of our fellow citizens, especially those among our middle class, feel neglected and undervalued in today’s economy and have effectively withdrawn from the labour market.   We definitely need them back in the game and feeling like they matter.  We also need to recognize that we may be working alone at the municipal level to resolve this issue as both the federal and provincial governments are consumed with many of their own financial and policy priorities. Nevertheless, as Lee Iacocca, the former head of Chrysler once said during the depths of the automakers troubles in the early 80’s, “We are continually faced by great opportunities brilliantly disguised as insoluble problems”.

  1. We need to make Jobs and Investment as our top priority.

We need to embrace our local businesses and make enabling them, promoting them and patronizing them a priority, especially as the global economy softens and the need to support our social safety net becomes even more demanding on the public purse.  We need to hang on to every business we can, every job we can, and every pay-check we can, to ensure that our economy can sustain itself and support the social services we so badly need across our city.

  1. We need to prioritize our limited resources.

We need to set aside some of our civic priorities in favour of more direct intervention into our business development and social service approaches; and thus, be much more judicious with our own public funds, choosing between nice-to-have and need-to-have projects.  For example, I very much favour our city’s reforestation efforts.  However, given our low-income housing crunch, we may need to defer our tree-planting plans in favour of refurbishing our social housing stock.  The good news is that Council is already aware of this need, and our City Manager, Mr Hayward, City Finance Officer, Ms Barbon and Budget Chair Councillor Morgan, are pretty adept at finding money where and when needed. Council need only set the direction and make addressing these four challenges our Staff’s highest priority.

  1. We need to engage everyone in this cause.

We need to recognize that these challenges are not for the Mayor, Council, City Staff, the Police, Downtown London. the Health Unit or anyone to solve alone.  We need a collective call to action where every Londoner, be it civic leader, business owner, social service agency, medical professional, academic, employee, patron, student or retiree makes it a point to support the job creation and investment attraction agenda of our city.

  1. We cannot wait.

We need to act now.  This effort cannot wait for the start of Council’s fall budget session. Businesses, particularly in the core, are under considerable duress right now.  Any delay only deepens the problem and increases the collateral costs required to remedy it.  Key stakeholders need to come together quickly to decide on immediate action steps to stem the erosion and restore the core to its key role as the heartbeat of our community.

If we as Londoners do not care, who will?

If we as Londoners do not act, who will?

This is our town.  This is our challenge.  This is our opportunity.

We either rise to it, or be consumed by it.

The choice is ours. The time is now.