TODAY’S ENTRY #864: Every city in Canada wants the same thing we want – jobs for its people. But if we’re all competing for the same thing, London needs an edge, something special, to stand out from the crowd. Our current economic strategy goes the opposite way.
Friday, May 24, 2013 – London
English-speaking Canada has 160 cities, communities of more than 10,000 people. Quebec does not distinguish between cities and towns, so you could add another dozen or more to the list.
The exact number isn’t important. What is important is each of those cities has pretty much the same goals and aspirations as the next one – we all want jobs, well-paying, sustainable jobs for our children, jobs for our newcomers, jobs for our citizens who have been displaced by a challenging economy, to quote Art Zuidema, the city manager. Guess the word unemployed was otherwise occupied.
So if we all have the same goal, what makes London think it’s so special it will somehow stand out on the list? That a job-creating organization is going to come here just because we’re, well you know, Canada’s London?
Ranked by metropolitan area, which includes smaller communities on the periphery of the major centre, London was Canada’s 11th largest ‘city’ with a population of 474,786 in 2011. The number includes St. Thomas, Dorchester, Strathroy, Kilworth and Ilderton. Five years earlier we were in 10th place, but the Kitchener-Waterloo-Cambridge has recently nudged ahead.
So it’s not population which makes us special. We’re not a seaport like Vancouver, Halifax or Victoria or accessible by sea like Montreal or Toronto. We have a good airport, but so do lots of cities; we’re connected by two railways, hardly special; we’re beside the busiest highway in the country and fairly close to the United States, not unique although an advantage not shared by many; we have space to grow, but this being Canada so does just about everywhere.
Is there anything that makes up special?
Well, yes. We are in the middle of Canada’s best cropland with easy access to an abundance of grains, fruits and vegetables. We are home to some world-class medical research facilities. We have some very specialized advanced manufacturing skills. We have some unusual entrepreneurial talents too – digital game-makers, software creators, music producers, among others – who are gaining an international reputation.
Now if your responsibility was to find a way to make London standout in a crowd, to attract organizations that would prosper over the long-term in this city, which of the list of things and talents we have would you emphasis?
That really is the crux of the debate that has simmered at city council ever since Joe Fontana was elected mayor two-and-a-half years ago and decided we needed a brand new economic strategy.
What did we pick?
Council has approved two broad economic initiatives. One is a bundle of five priority projects worth about $60 million – two-thirds of which is earmarked for buying and servicing land along the 401/402 highway corridor which will be attractive to just-in-time manufacturing industries or distribution companies; The other is a massive residential development of greenfields in the southwest, the spine of which will be a huge retail and commercial economic zone.
Apparently London is special because you can drive your truck real close or you can always find a spot to sell stuff. Really?
That’s our current economic strategy. The bet would seem to be that one of the most over-retailed cities in Canada will be able to attract a bunch of companies wanting to make or package products close to the highway which will creative so many new jobs people we’ll need kilometres of new shops to spend their money.
This, of course, is notwithstanding the real possibility the rapidly emerging technology of 3D printing will turn the concept of manufacturing on its head in the next decade; or that changing demographics and technology will forever shift how and where we make purchases.
Good luck with that.
Alternatively, of course, we could focus on what it takes to expand our little cluster of agribusinesses, thereby encouraging scores of companies based in Toronto which truck the raw material from here to there to move a little closer to the action. Or we could figure out what a gamer, code writer, musician needs from us to feel happy in a place like London. Or we could find ways to help demonstrate clearly the opportunities our skills in advanced manufacturing techniques offer, perhaps attracting some more global partners.
That would make us special.