Late last month I had the opportunity to attend our new Mayor’s first State of the City address and I have to say I was quite impressed.
For the first time in recent memory, a London Mayor avoided the rainbow-filled hyperbole and gimmicks that have dominated past addresses, and offered instead a rather honest appraisal of where we are as a City and more importantly, where we need to focus our resources to improve the lives of our citizens going forward.
It would be of little surprise to any Londoner that our city is facing some daunting challenges – stagnant income growth, increasing poverty and homelessness levels, multiple transportation and infrastructure demands, and a seemingly endless need to expand/improve services.
One area of note in the speech that both caught my attention and caused me to breathe a sigh of relief was a recognition by Mayor Holder, that London’s CMA Employment Rate is well below the national average and the lowest among our peer municipalities in Ontario. This is one measure that I referred to frequently on the campaign, especially given its persistent downward trend and troubling ramifications for our community. A quick Statscan comparison of London and our peer group in Southwestern Ontario in January 2019 highlights this disturbing employment reality.
- Guelph 68%
- Kitchener-Waterloo 67%
- Hamilton 62%
- London 57%
For years, London has relied upon the unemployment rate as the measure of the health of our economy. And while recent trend lines are encouraging, this reported rate fails to reflect the percentage of our population who have given up even looking for work. Even when one nets out retirees and young people, the number of capable, working-age Londoners who have given up on our local labour market is staggering.
This economic challenge is compounded by London’s abysmal earnings growth over the past decade. London is one of the few municipalities in Canada where median income levels have remained largely flat since 2005. In fact, per Statscan, in the decade between 2005-2015, Londoner’s median annual incomes actually declined 3.6%, and the number of Londoners reporting no income increased 19% to 122,000 people!
The consequence of these two trends is that more and more Londoners are not only unable to contribute to our social support network, they are being forced to draw upon it to sustain themselves. This net drain on local resources, when coupled with record high consumer debt levels, tightening capital markets and long overdue fiscal constraints at both senior levels of government, means that London’s financial health is in a very precarious position, especially if the global economy continues to cool as anticipated.
In response, I continue to believe that our city needs to take some proactive and aggressive economic development measures now, rather than wait for external market pressures to impose the need upon us.
For one, London needs to recognize that its current economic development model is simply not working and needs to be amended. Even a cursory review of the Economic Road Map shows a plan chock-full of a confusing array of tactics and activities; and yet lacking an overall owner, clear lines of responsibilities and measurable economic outcomes. London City Council currently invests over $2 million annually in economic development operations, and yet I believe most Londoners would struggle to identify who is doing what and how we measure success. To be clear, our city knows what to do. For years, our civic leaders have hosted conference after conference, inviting our business brightest minds to the table and asking them how to best build our economy. And the answers are almost always the same:
- Focus on our strengths: advanced manufacturing, defense, food processing, health care
- Leverage our geography: proximity to the United States, extensive agricultural and water resources
- Leverage our knowledge assets: college, university, diverse workforce
- Support entrepreneurship: both tech and non-tech
- Improve our business processes, technology interfaces
These strategies are not complicated. Our success is dependent upon relentless execution, and yet, as evidenced by the economic comparators outlined above, we simply are not executing.
Establish A Owner
To this end, I believe the Mayor and City Council would be well served by assigning a senior staff member to the task of determining clear strategic objectives for each economic development organization receiving municipal funds, and detailing the specific areas of responsibility and mutually-agreed upon performances measures as a condition of receiving these funds. In addition to making it easier to assess effectiveness and amend strategies, this approach will protect against the duplication of effort and internal competition that seems to have consumed our economic development apparatus for so many years.
Second, I would urge Council to reassess and reallocate their $2 million annual economic development investment to support three initiatives that in my opinion are underserviced opportunities to build our economy. They include: (i) intensifying our workforce development efforts, (ii) expanding civic support for the city’s growing roster of Business Improvement Areas (BIAs), and (iii) augmenting the London International Airport market reach.
To the Mayor’s credit, he has already assembled a task force to address our city’s workforce development need, so the balance of my blog will focus on the latter two investments.
Invest In Our Local Business Districts
Throughout the campaign, I met business owner after business owner in each of London’s BIAs who expressed genuine excitement over the economic prospects of their business district. However, these bright business leaders also expressed concern over their ability to mobilize their district plans into action due to a lack of resources – be it marketing, legal, or property development expertise. To its credit, the City’s Planning department has been making team members available to help refresh and revitalize these promising hubs of local commerce. However, the BIAs could also use more marketing resources to help expand their market reach, and legal and property development experts to help explore new community uses of old, delinquent properties, all with the goal of building a rich network of local businesses that create high-value jobs and enhance neighbourhood pride.
Invest In Our Airport
Similarly, London City Council should use some of its economic development funds to pursue a formal partnership with our airport and ideally, a carrier with direct service to major centres in the US and/or Europe. London needs to make it much easier and more convenient for capital and talent to interact with our city if we hope to compete with similar-sized centres in Eastern Canada and the US. While I remain a strong supporter of high-speed rail, I also recognize that the quickest way for us to secure a broader market presence and attract outside investment to our community is through air travel. London is very fortunate to have such a highly-functional asset nearby. So why not fully maximize its potential impact for economic and social gain?
As the Mayor made clear in his address, London is a city rich in promise but also facing many nagging economic and social challenges that largely remain ours alone to resolve. Yet we will never have the resources necessary to effectively address our future housing, infrastructure and/or transportation needs without a much stronger commitment to economic growth. As such, we as a community need to take ownership of these challenges and confront them head on, or continue to defer to others in the hopes they will eventually resolve themselves. I believe Council’s new Strategic Plan and next budget present a wonderful opportunity for us to positively and proactively influence our own fate, before fate is imposed upon us.
The choice is ours and the time to act is now.