Tuesday, March 20, 2012

A Micropolitan Plan For New Brunswick

If we had a smart economic development strategy for rural New Brunswick, what would it look like?

It wouldn't look at all like what we've been doing for twenty years, that's for sure. Governments have spent millions chasing white elephants, offering huge subsidies to lure industries to towns they normally wouldn't even look at. We take money from taxpayers to put bagel factories or yarn factories or hockey stick factories in a town where they willl barely stay longer than it takes politicians to cut the ribbon.

The result is usually a factory that stays until the subsidies run out, then heads off to the highest bidder elsewhere, usually outside Canada.

What if, instead of looking for one magic bullet to create 100 jobs in Doaktown or Perth or Paquetville, we asked how 50 businesses can each create two jobs by meeting the markets that exist there naturally?

I just described the micropolitan movement-- the approach that gives small cities and towns the power to grow by rebuilding their Main Streets by giving local entrepreneurs the tools to create small businesses that meet local needs, and to create local cultural and tourism industries that make their town distinct. Rather than look to lure grantrepreneurs, micropolitan leaders seek to support entrepreneurs.

Mactaquac in Fall
In this approach, New Brunswick doesn't aim to be Toronto Jr. Rather, our small cities, towns, villages, rural areas, and natural vistas should be seen as assets, as strategic advantages in promoting job creation and economic growth. We should be confident of who we are and of the quality of life advantages New Brunswick offers.

In my campaign's jobs plan – which I've suggested Liberals should introduce in the Legislature immediately after our convention – I have outlined the proposal for a “one more job” small-business summit, with the aim of creating 26,000 jobs for the 26,000 small businesses in this province. This would amount to an investment in local entrepreneurs throughout our province’s cities, towns, villages, and rural areas, revitalizing these communities through local businesses, and create an opportunity for networking and mentorship for entrepreneurs.

It's also time for the creation of a capital bank which would include micro-credit for new entrepreneurs – “indie capitalism” – to encourage the creation of new business enterprises in our communities. This would mean the creation of new businesses and jobs from Caraquet to Edmundston, from St. Stephen to Woodstock to Sackville, chosen through the acumen and leadership of private sector and community leaders, not politicized grants.

We have already heard of the benefits of buying and eating locally – this has economic benefits to local farmers and ecological benefits in reducing transportation costs. We must add to this the need to “invest locally” so that buying and eating locally becomes more viable.

The reforms I would propose for Business New Brunswick would include an entrepreneurship desk to provide private sector lenders networks across the province, as well as the facilitation of business mentorship for new entrepreneurs and access to angel investors. Providing this help to small business is essential to revitalizing communities throughout New Brunswick based on their own unique advantages, building on the strengths of local entrepreneurship, community enterprise aimed at building up New Brunswick’s communities.

In addition to promoting entrepreneurship and job creation, we need to make New Brunswick’s cities, towns, and villages the kinds of hubs of creativity that attract young professionals and innovative entrepreneurs. Providing support – for example through an infrastructure bank – to local theatre, artists, music, and cultural festivals would be an important step in this regard. Fredericton – long a centre for artistic and creative endeavours – has been able to attract a strong IT sector.

St. Andrews, NB
Furthermore, such local festivals promote tourism. Consider Park City Utah, a once struggling mining town that has now become a centre of independent film with the Sundance Film Festival. America's National Governors' Association has identified a rural arts strategy as a key to job creation, yet New Brunswick, so well positioned as a bilingual, bicultural province, hasn't even started this work.

Sustainable development must be at the core of any micropolitan strategy. This means encouraging and revitalizing walkable downtowns that serve as community centres and hubs of creative and entrepreneurial activity. This means limiting the kind of sprawl that often unnecessarily eats into agricultural lands and landscapes, and erodes the unique character of our cities, towns, villages, and rural landscapes.

It also means making sure that government departments work together in supporting economic development plans. Ensuring that the Department of agriculture supports "farm-to-table" businesses and networks, restoring funding for the entrepreneurial community schools program the UN recognized (and the Tories cut), and seeing our environment as a competitive advantage when we look at issues like hydrofracking and open pit mining -- these would all help.

Smaller cities and communities don't have to accept boarded-up Main Streets and dependence on bailed-out businesses. The world is full of small towns who have built world-class businesses by helping local entrepreneurs meet local needs, and found a niche in culture and tourism. We have unlimited creativity in our people. We are only limited by the creativity of government, and that is a problem that can be easily fixed.