Comments on Mike Moffat – SW Ontario Blog…

The following are some comments that I posted on Dr. Mike Moffat’s Southwest Ontario Website. He has written some really good stuff over there and I encourage the whole two people who read my site to go and take a look.

I offer my own partially informed views on the 6 areas Dr. Moffat has outlined for the resurgence of SW Ontario. Having been born and raised in Tillsonburg On, spending my summers in Port Lambton and currently residing in Windsor I offer a different perspective. I agree that something needs to be done about the situation that we face but I am not convinced that a one size fits all solution for SW ON can work. What is good for London is very likely to have little impact or be bad for Windsor or Waterloo and the advantages and challenges that Stratford or Tillsonburg holds are different then Paris or Wallaceburg.

1) An educated workforce: home-grown, or the ability to attract it from elsewhere. Local universities.

I agree with Dr. Moffat here that the universities in SW Ontario are a great strength but that strength is mitigated by the poor economy and high unemployment rate. Even if things are improving from an economic and unemployment standpoint the perception that this area is depressed remains. If people don’t believe that they can find a job locally they won’t bother looking, especially if they are out of town students who can return home. This matter is made worse when media and pundits talk about labour shortages in AB and BC as students can easily put two and two together and figure that they can’t find work in SW ON.

Anecdotally I can say that a number of friends who I grew up with in Tillsonburg Ontario and went to University in SW Ont have left the province to go to BC or Alberta. Other university companions have gone to Korea, Japan, or the Mideast to teach English as local job prospects were weak. The vast majority have congregated around the GTA where they could get jobs.

There is always a challenge to keep students in an area (especially when they aren’t natives of the area) as the warm embrace of a free bed and meals at mommy’s and daddy’s house post-graduation is strong. It would be interesting to see what percentage of students enrolled in SW Ont universities are local, how many are from out of town and how many are international as those distinct groups likely each have differing criteria in order to stay in the region post-graduation. The ability to retain the local talent is contingent on being able to identify those who are willing to stay giving the opportunity

2. Access to global markets.

I think the region needs more than just airports and cheap air travel as there are more to world markets then just getting on a plane. The fact is that the cost of airports and air travel is not something that can be sorted out by local government or regionally as federal regulation and cabotage inflates costs. If the regulations are removed they would be removed for all of Canada (and likely the US as well as a part of a continental agreement) and as result flight costs from all Canadian airports in theory would decline depending on how much competition emerged. It wouldn’t necessarily mean that SW ON airports would become more competitive or receive additional fight as the removal of regulation could easily just result in more flights into existing hubs.

Yes for service and tech companies face to face interaction is an important part of business but geography plays a big role too. KW, Guelph, Brantford are all within an approximate 1 hour drive to Pearson does it make a lot of sense to invest in a “world class” airport in London which might be a little closer to these cities but will only ever receive a fraction of the flights? The same could be said for the extreme south-west, using Detroit’s metro airport is a far cheap alternative then hoping that Windsor will gain additional daily flights after if regulation is removed. Will London truly be a good service alternative to Toronto, Detroit or Buffalo especially when other parts of SW ON are closer to these airport hubs. Maybe the answer is getting people from their airports to the region more efficiently.

That being said airports can be more than about moving people. Windsor for example got Fed-Ex to become a principle tenant at a new Cargo hub at the cities international airport (after a property tax exemption) and a publically owned aircraft maintenance facility that was leased to Premier aviation offers the hope for a aircraft maintenance facility in the city. Airports do offer the ability to directly trade with the world, I can’t speak for this in with much background knowledge but if local manufactures can ship or receive goods through these airports and an efficient and effective manner they could become a tool for moving much more than people.

Beyond Airports, I would argue that the US is the most important global market for SW ON, Projects like the DRIC and a new train tunnel to get people and good across the Detroit River are likely going to help the region on that front. For years rumours of a car/truck ferry across Lake Erie to either Pennsylvania or Cleveland have circulated. I know that one attempt was blocked by NIMBYism in cottagers along Lake but to put a Ferry that could cut the drive around the lake in half would likely bring benefits to the area. More connections with our nearest neighbour can only bring good things, especially if the Rust Belt is going to turn around like the original article on the US suggests.

To reach beyond the US, SW ON must rely on neighbouring regions, provinces and states as I am not convinced that a airports in our area will be our saving grace. Improved rail infrastructure can help move the remains of the regions manufacturing capacity to market. If a high speed rail network ever gets built in the US it may make sense to build one in the Windsor to Montreal corridor to offer an alternative to flying and to further integrate our region. Roads and bridges all need to be maintained, power grids and electricity generation that enable low energy costs need to be developed, and water and sewers have to up-kept.

3. World-class amenities and events: professional sports, tourist attractions

Honestly I think that this is both an important factor for SW ON and one of the most difficult to accomplish. With major professional sport teams concentrated in cities surrounding SW ON (Toronto, Detroit and Buffalo) it means that the region will likely be limited to second tier minor league teams and the odds of getting a team from one of the big 4 leagues are likely slim to none. This means that minor league teams will have to do, the question becomes do they have the drawing power?

Now if the goal is to keep students from the local universities/collages you need to have something for them to do, a reason to go downtown and spend money. The nice things about sport teams is that for 30-80 nights a year they draw people to their arena or stadium plus concerts and other performances. London was smart when they built JLC/Bud Garden they put it downtown to create an attraction. People then went to bars and resturants before the show/game/event. Events like the Memorial Cup are big draws and naturally if you put a winning team on the ice/field it helps too. Windsor did the opposite and built the WFCU Centre out in Tecumseh so it was in the suburbs and anecdotally you hear some regret from people that a 7000 seat area wasn’t put downtown. A pretty good book on sports team and cultural centres as a part of economic development is Major League Winners.

Again geography plays a key role, as Dr. Moffat colleague mentioned the Great Lakes are a huge and this then has an impact on what sort of attracts a city can employ. Grand Bend. Long Point or Port Stanley will always be the summers go to spots in SW ON so people can lounge at a beach, London or Waterloo will never have that but they still have to compete with it.

As a result you have to build a holistic approach to these ideas. In Windsor I have worked for an Organization called Canada South Festival Network which is a marketing and data collection not-for-profit that supports local festivals and events. What Windsor=Essex has done is from Easter to Thanksgiving there is a different festival and event being run every weekend. Windsor has built a waterfront festival plaza which is integrated into a 5 KM waterfront park and walking path. The city just built a new aquatic centre right downtown and both UofW and St. Clair College have moved or are moving programs to new campuses to the city centre.  In my opinion cities are built from the center our, without a strong downtowns it is tough to deal with blight and shuttered factors on the periphery.

 

4. Transportation infrastructure: airports, highways, subways/rail, bike lanes, walkability.

I touched on many of these issues in point two as a good infrastructure is needed in order to be connected to global market. Locally, ensuring that traffic within communities is manageable, that there are green spaces, bike paths and walking trails for citizens to use (and hopefully enjoy). I doubt subways will ever be a part of SW ON but I would love to see high speed rail between Windsor and Montreal.

 

5. Available housing/land: cheap housing and/or the ability to build cheap housing.

Yes housing and property is cheaper in SW On than the GTA but that is partially due to economic circumstances and reputation of the region. In Wallaceburg Ontario you can buy a one bedroom bungalow for $40,000 but the town is dead and Wal-Mart is the largest employer. Windsor has a similar reputation of a dead automotive city suffering the spillover from Detroit. Every town and city has “a wrong side of the tracks”  the question is whether that part of the city has become the reputation of the city as a whole.

Despite Windsor’s goal of increasing population density (as a part of provincial mandate) the city has seen it decline and people moving out of the area an into the more affluent suburbs of Tecumseh, LaSalle or Lakeshore or out into the county. As a result housing prices in Windsor itself are pretty reasonable (likely even more so then London).

That being said there is more to cheap housing to attract people/businesses. Communities that saw the collapse of their manufacturing jobs likely also saw a similar decline in tax receipts. They had to make up those loses somewhere. Windsor managed to hold the line on property taxes for the last 6 years but during that same period development charges rose from $9,006 city wide to $17,435/unit (some sections of the city have been provided with lower charges under separate by-law, I am illustrating the extremes). Retail charges went from went from $1.70 a square foot to $3.97 and to the council’s credit industrial charges remain non-existent. Development charges have an impact on property taxes and on their own can raise the property taxes within a community

What you have is an environment where development could be potentially stifled as efforts to maintain low property tax rates have caused other fees and charges to be increased in order to maintain budgets.

 6. Adequate non-transportation based infrastructure.

Although I don’t have an experience with this it makes sense as having access to capital and modern high tech infrastructure. I image that improved wireless infrastructure should be lumped in here. What about pipelines?

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