Continuing with the ‘Now, Next, After Next’ list of business development priorities, today’s blog focuses on four potential actions the City can take over the next year to help build our commercial book of business, and by extension grow our economy. The priorities include:
- Fast-tracking core development projects.
- Returning economic development to City Hall and making business growth the responsibility of all City Council.
- Establishing a BIA support network.
- Supplementing safe consumption services with a mobile network and expanding service coverage/hours.
While London’s employment rate struggles are known and well documented, one sector of our economy that continues to perform well is the housing market. London’s competitiveness relative to other major centres has made it an attractive destination for new home buyers. However, this increased demand, coupled with low inventories, has created a sharp escalation in prices and negatively impacted both availability and affordability. London needs to increase its housing inventory and fast, and especially in the high-density multi-unit market where the need for affordable housing is paramount. Fast tracking high-density developments, particularly in the core, create jobs, improves affordability, and puts more ‘feet on the street’ to support our core merchants. Some of London’s top developers are anxious to proceed, and their plans are consistent with the goals and guidelines contained in the London Plan. Yet, despite this market need, some City Councillors, who have whole-heartedly supported the London Plan in principle, continue to routinely push back on projects that meet the London Plan objectives. All of our civic leaders need to make these investments a priority and ‘help not hinder’ the progression of these projects from concept to commissioning.
In a related action step, our City also needs to rethink our entire economic development infrastructure, because based on the numbers, our current approach is simply not working. Despite our best efforts, we have simply not stemmed the steady erosion in our employment rate and relatively flat income growth rates. Our working-age population has increased 12% over the past 10 years, yet our job growth is only 4% over that same period. These results compare unfavourably with Waterloo and Windsor where their working-age populations grew at roughly the same rate as ours, yet their percent job growth over the same period averaged an impressive 18%! Moreover, while Waterloo and Windsor both can boast employment rates near the 63% provincial average, London’s employment rate is currently at 57%, dead last among major centres throughout Canada.
As such, it may be time for City Hall to seize control of our economic development structure and have all city-funded organizations (incl: London Economic Development Corporation, London Medical Network, Tourism London, Techalliance and the Small Business Centre) have a much stronger reporting relationship with the City Manager’s Office. Civic representation on their Boards is not enough. In my opinion, our city’s economic development efforts would be much better served if all of these organizations reported through to the City Manager or appropriate designate so that: (i) all of the resources are better coordinated, and (ii) everyone involved is working toward specific business development targets that are clear, measurable, and achievable.
It is also important, that all of Council, and not just the Mayor, accept accountability for the sector’s performance so that business development gets the attention and priority it requires and deserves. This includes Council members making regular rounds to the businesses in their respective wards and working with business owners to resolve area issues. Some Councillors are much better at this than others. Nevertheless, our business community needs much more of Council’s attention. They need to know that their business. clients and employees matter to the community, and that Council is totally vested in their success.
In addition to the above restructuring, I still maintain that London’s roster of Business Improvement Areas (BIAs) present our city with a rich opportunity to build our commercial capacity and civic pride quickly and cost effectively. I had the pleasure of meeting a number of BIA members who passionately shared with me their ideas, dreams and desires to build their business and the local communities they serve. They only asked for a little administrative support to help turn their concepts into a reality. To this end, I thought it would be worthwhile for the City to find the resources necessary to help these business leaders realize their community goals. The model I have in mind is one similar in structure to the Urban League and its network of community associations, a partnership that has proven very effective in building London’s neighbourhoods. I would like to see the London BIAs emulate this model so that the members can share best practices, combine resources on select projects and influence future public policy that is business-friendly. While the setup and support cost would not be much, the benefits could be limitless.
Finally, I still very much believe that despite the incredible efforts of the Carepoint Safe Consumption support team, there are not enough resources to properly service the vast number of Londoners now struggling with addiction in our city. And yet, the success of this safe consumption program is vital to the health of our community in general and the business community in particular. After all, our core businesses are dealing with the consequences of this drug problem all day, every day. It is impacting their business, their patrons, their employees and their district.
As such, I maintain that Londoner’s afflicted with drug addiction would benefit greatly from the deployment of one or two mobile units to provide the service when and where the paraphernalia is needed and not concentrate it in any one location. The mobile units are discrete, flexible and cost effective. They also provide Carepoint with an ability to support its clients without the cost and hassle associated with establishing permanent sites throughout the city. I recognize and understand that there are regulatory and cost hurdles to this approach. However, I also know that the current safe consumption site is far from optimal and increasingly impactful on the surrounding businesses. Many business owners have shared their concerns with me in confidence about this challenge for fear of being considered unsympathetic to the situation if they speak out directly. It follows then, that we as a community, in partnership with the province, had better start leaning into this challenge and support all the stakeholders involved, or risk being overwhelmed by it.
The choice is ours, and the stakes cannot get much higher.
Tomorrow – After Next