As summer cools down, and Burlington gets back to business as usual, it feels like the right time to warm things up with a rant.
Many of us are focussed on the economic turmoil in Greece, China and elsewhere. The federal election is making us stare into the abyss of a prolonged Canadian recession.
So let’s pause to look within. Let’s talk about our local economy.
How’s it look to you?
To assist, click on the following map – and envision the current stores, offices and industrial-commercial-institutional buildings…..
On a positive note, there seems to be roughly the same number of businesses here now, as existed a few years ago. Maybe even two decades ago.
On a negative note, repeat the last sentence.
Where’s the growth?
Why is there so much un(der)developed non-residential land, including along what City Hall likes to call the “Prosperity Corridor” (click on the photo below)?
And what about the re-invented and re-energized Burlington Economic Development Corporation leading the charge for change?
Before I try to respond to those questions, we should start with BEDC’s business partner and primary funding source, the City of Burlington.
City Hall has a lot on its plate.
Having said that (and sorry for making you groan about the photo), a menu of long-term priorities is relatively short.
It basically includes two I‘s – Intensification and Infrastructure.
Add one AH – Affordable Housing.
However, I believe the top priority and weakness to address for our future is, as you’ve probably guessed, ED (not the medical condition) – Economic Development.
That term is really code for job creation.
We need to intentionally target and bring in BIG business, those with 50 or more employees.
A big-business-centred approach broadens the entire tax base in significant ways. It will help pay for and support so many other short and long-term needs locally. It will also attract smaller businesses, and benefit those with roots already here to grow.
At present, a meagre 6% of employers in Burlington have 50 or more employees, while a whopping 65% of business establishments are self-employed.
Keep in mind too, non-residential properties cost much less than residential for a municipality to service. Healthy margin, healthier bottom line.
Dive into a lot of data, bring out lovely charts and brochures. No matter how you slice and dice it, BIG business will be the BIG difference-maker for Burlington.
As a longtime business leader asked me this week, “When was the last time a really big business came to Burlington?”
Well, it was a long time ago (hint: the name begins with “G”, and you can email your answer to this quiz to firstname.lastname@example.org).
None of this big-game hunting will be easy or quick!
No doubt, though, time is of the essence. We’re arriving late to the modern ED game.
After enduring a long no-growth drought, and falling behind our GTHA neighbours, the pump needs to get primed immediately.
Success will depend largely on the leadership, effectiveness and relationship of BEDC and City Hall – including how they collaborate with the Burlington Chamber of Commerce to advocate for our community as a premium destination for businesses.
A few details about how that synergy might work in the long run, despite some initial hurdles to get over…..
*** BEDC ***
As mentioned earlier, this is an organization with a renewed sense of purpose.
Regrettably, BEDC is off to a slow start after an extensive study of its past problems, followed by a 2014 relaunch (the vision statement claims BEDC will “operate at the speed of business“, which is great if you get paid by the hour!).
It’s been weak at communicating (when was the last time you heard or saw anything from BEDC?). And its optics are not helpful either.
That is, while preaching change, inclusivity and transparency at the “new” BEDC, some initial decisions suggested otherwise.
An 11-person Board was selected with only 2 female directors (apparently BEDC is going with a new “old boys club” model) – not to mention that several directors, including the Chair, don’t work in this city; the website provides scant to no information about the corporation (no particulars about its corporate relationship to the City, no listing of all of the executive officers, no profiles about directors other than job titles, no indication if directors are volunteering or paid (as originally proposed), etc.); and 4 out of the 11 directors are employed by the City.
That last observation means City Hall has a strong voice at BEDC’s table, wielding a weighty 36% of the vote. Political and business types usually have very different natures and agendas, which can be counterproductive in a boardroom setting.
Perhaps, the Board’s composition will lighten up on the number of City folk, as it evolves over time.
In terms of looking forward, BEDC is compiling “Burlington Vision 2025”. Here’s the latest on that front….
While visioning is an important exercise and guide, this due diligence process could lead to paralysis-by-analysis (the consultant’s dense “economic baseline” report alone would be enough), and blurry goals.
But it’s still early days.
With his entrepreneurial drive and impressive skills, new Executive Director, Frank McKeown, seems the right kind of take-charge leader to grab hold of BEDC’s steering wheel, once the accelerator is pressed down. A shift in gears can’t come too soon.
*** CITY HALL ***
Can the current administration foster an improved local environment for business?
To start, City Hall will need to better co-ordinate its efforts with both BEDC and the Burlington Chamber of Commerce to help cleanse and truly refresh our stagnant economic development pool.
Those groups must clearly define their roles to avoid duplication or conflict, and work closely together.
To that end, Council’s new “Strategic Plan 2015-2018” will need to embrace and fold in BEDC’s “Burlington Vision 2025“. Will the new City Manager, James Ridge, ensure that happens and position himself as a pro-business champion?
It will be interesting to find out what transpires later this year, when both documents are finalized and rolled out….
Hopefully, unlike in the past, there will be no soft and mushy words with wobbly measures to track progress.
Let’s see a solid straightforward plan, followed by real results. The future of Burlington’s local economy will depend on both.
Here endeth my long rant.
Actually, rather than a rant, a few prayers may be more appropriate at this point.