Before proceeding, I wanted to first apologize for the delay in posting this week’s edition of The Paolatto Report. To be honest, I was uncomfortable posting a storyline about our economy while tragedy was striking innocent people in Las Vegas, Edmonton and France. I know that it is best for all of us to continue to move forward in light of such events, and I am doing so now. However, I thought it best to pause for an extra day and allow all of us time to process these senseless acts, and hope, as always, that these will be the last.
One of the processes that I find painful to work through corporately is the vision thing. It is a highly subjective undertaking that can consume a considerable amount of time and resources, and frequently results in something that is either too broad, too complicated or too convoluted to be meaningful. Worse still, the vision is often subject to misinterpretation, set aside in favour of more immediate day-to-day priorities, or treated with complete indifference.
Nevertheless, if our community is to aspire to become better than we are, we need to define where we want to go and what we want to be. We need to define our ‘destination’.
Fortunately, and to the credit of our current Council, London’s civic leaders have developed what I consider to be a very clear, achievable vision statement for our community. It reads:
London become a leader in commerce, culture and innovation, and the region’s connector to the world.
In my view, the above statement eloquently conveys London’s desire to become a vibrant city that pursues and embraces initiatives designed to make our community more progressive and prosperous. So rather than ‘re-invent the wheel’, let’s build on what we collectively have begun.
Unfortunately, our City has, thus far, struggled to deliver on this vision. In my opinion, the city has surrendered its initial momentum to divisive, energy-consuming debates over BRT, constraining civic planning philosophies, needless budget/contract disputes, and a cluttered approach to the delivery of economic development and social services.
The implementation process has also been compromised by a litany of sub-plans, distracting Council add-ons and progress metrics that lack focus and tax resources.
Still, the vision holds considerable promise, especially if the plans, program and people charged with realizing it can be simplified and enabled. This is especially true of the City’s economic development agenda, and as the economy goes, so goes the City.
So, in an effort to lend greater clarity to our endeavour and make it easier for everyone to understand, I have attempted to simply the above vision by identifying what I believe to be its key attributes. I then plan to focus my proposed economic development game plan through this prism.
In simplest terms, I believe London seeks to be city that is smart, healthy, caring and fun. Therefore, it follows that I also believe London’s economic development apparatus needs to be targeting sectors and building businesses that reflect one or more of these attributes.
Not surprisingly, London’s economic development leaders have appropriately identified advanced manufacturing (33k employees), health care (21k employees) and the digital sectors (9k employees) as primary business development targets. Collectively, they represent London’s largest employment contributors, and drive economic development in the builder, retail and professional services and social enterprise sectors, or what I call London’s economic base. What is less obvious is that London also boasts an exceptionally large, economically powerful educational sector and an equally impressive entertainment sector.
Each of the above sectors will be further dissected in future posts. For now, I want to focus on why they are particularly important to our economy and fit our target attributes.
London is a manufacturing town. Building things is in this city’s DNA. What’s more, the London region is home to some of the most impressive cache of smart, sector-leading manufacturers including: 3M, General Dynamics, Labatt, and Trudell, all of whom generate ancillary employment opportunities in the region and seems capable of withstanding the employment swings often associated with our volatile currency relative to the US dollar. In addition, the sector is supported by two respected post-secondary institutions with strong engineering and technical skill development programs, and an array of assets in product development, testing and validation. Our city has expanded its industrial land development strategy to attract companies, and begun to reach out again internationally to recruit new market sector entrants. Recent infrastructure investment along the 401 corridor, and a greater concentration of food processing industries should help continue the sector’s return to economic prominence in the region.
Medicine and Health Care
London is home to the 5th largest health care sector and one of the largest concentration of medical researchers’ per capita in the nation. The blend of a world-class medical faculty and two of Canada’s premier research hospitals make this a very promising target sector. In recent years, London has begun to attract top medical talent from around the world. This talent brings with them reputations, resources, investment and commercial spin-off opportunities. The sector is also valuable because of the additional care available to the community. To its credit, London has recognized the potential of this unique sector and make a substantial investment in it, however, it must be remembered that growth in this sector is a long term play that requires patience and perseverance.
London’s digital economy is an emerging sector no more. Over the past 15 years, London’s tech sector has grown from nowhere to become a significant employer with an impressive number of companies offering a range of applications and online services. Moreover, some of London’s largest long-standing employers, including TD and London Life, have developed or are in the process of developing significant digital capacity in our community. While London has yet to be recognized nationally as a digital leader, it has developed a strong reputation for application development in financial services, online marketing and gaming.
One sector that does not get much attention, yet contributes significantly to London’s economic vision is the education sector. In addition to generating millions in economic value through the attraction and retention of students, grants, public and private sector investment, the education sector outputs our country’s most valuable resources – knowledge, skills and creativity. And while considerable attention is paid to our educational system’s contribution to science, engineering, medicine and information technology; our institutions also develop our future business leaders and professionals as well as our creative culture (artists, musicians, chefs). Our educational sector enriches our city and it is a sector that should be further developed.
London’s entertainment sector is another hidden gem that needs to be celebrated and expanded. The city’s impressive network of sports, arts and cultural assets and success stories does more than just entertain the locals. It has emerged into a strong regional player and material contributor to the attraction of tourists and patrons to the city. In addition, the city’s tourism department and associated hospitality sector has punched well above its weight class repeatedly securing world-class attractions to our community. Once again, this is a sector where London can compete and succeed.
London’s Economic Base
Two sub-sectors that often receive little profile but are no less important to our economy are our Builders and our small businesses. If one were to rate a winning team, London’s roster of developers and builders have compiled a long and impressive track record of success not just in London, but across the region. These exceptional companies invest millions in the region’s economy, create hundreds of high-paying construction jobs annually, revitalize and restore dilapidated buildings and neighbourhoods, and contribute thousands to civic projects and local charities each year.
Similarly, our cache of small businesses and social enterprises create jobs for our citizens, provide places of sustenance, entertainment, personal care for their patrons, and enrich our city with their tastes, wares and services. Collectively, these unsung drivers of London’s economy give our city its look, feel and identify both locally and for those visiting us abroad.
Given the value of these sectors to our community and their contribution to our vision as City, it is my view that our community needs to not just respect them, but embrace them and find ways to help them be very more successful.
Next week I plan to release a series of much shorter posts, first outlining our economic development goals, and then detailing specific strategies and tactics for each of the above sectors. It is my hope that these resulting sector plans will, when aggregated, deliver on our intended economic objectives, and make London a true leader in commerce, culture, innovation, and the region’s connector to the world. In my opinion, if we are not collectively and relentlessly working towards this ‘destination’, then what are we doing?