My Thoughts on #WindsorGone Part 3 – What can we do?

I apologize for the slow posting of this final section. I got hit with the flu…

As I mentioned in my first blog, many of the broad reaching catch all phrases of “economic diversification”, “entrepreneurship” or “convincing young people to get an education in X field” are really beyond the control of local governments and organizations to implement and be successful.

The success of those broad measures requires vast amounts of time, money, luck and in some cases even a cultural shift in society. To make matters worse, those catch alls are the exact same things that every other community that is down on its luck is looking for. Since there are only so many government subsidies that can be awarded to attract investment; only so many start ups have that perfect idea that launches the next big thing; and we can only convince so many trades people and high skilled technicians to stay in Windsor-Essex when there is a shortage across North America. So the question that needs to be asked is what can be done to attract and retain young people to the Windsor-Essex region? The following are in my view some of the potential local solutions to some of the challenges Windsor-Essex faces.

Neighbourhoods – Windsor-Essex is home some of the highest concentrations of poverty in poor neighbourhoods in Canada. These neighbourhoods not only give the impression of the city being worse off than it actually is, but inequity in the city costs all taxpayers and governments through  social programs and community supports. Although it is unreasonable to expect every neighbourhood to be equally wealthy and serviced, battling poverty on a local level will have dramatic improvements on the city’s psyche, perception to the outside world and the overall connectivity within the city and region.

The adage “a rising tide raise all boats” applies here. Reducing poverty in neighbourhoods across our city will not only improve the lives of members of our community but it will help to create jobs by increasing the spending power of those who currently are most in need. These neighbourhood then attract young people and small businesses turning themselves into hubs of activity and positive feelings within the city. From these thriving neighbourhoods result in engaged parents and better schools, which produce better students who in turn become the foundation of our future workforce. Striving to settle neighbourhood inequity through little things like keeping open a community centre and libraries; improving connectivity, a encouraging investment can have a dramatic impact on the lives of many people at very little cost to society with dividends being paid for years into the future.

Regionalism – With a total population that hovers around 400,000 people, Windsor-Essex county doesn’t have the demographic strength to support the economics of scale to attract business and investment when compared to other parts of Ontario or the Midwest United States. One way to counter this is to formally bring our region together. To solve truly regional issues like transit and economic development, then have an actual regional government. Unfortunately the current upper tier county government is relatively weak politically, it hands a handful of services but their overall vitalness of those services and their impact on the day to day lives of the majority of people in Windsor-Essex is negligible. The recent police services debate that is occurring between Amherstburg, Windsor and LaSalle are a perfect example of this, what should be a reasonable cost saving effort has become bogged down in politics due to the geography of the region.

By regionalizing our government not only will their be saving in administration and duplication that can then be passed on businesses and taxpayers making our region more competitive, the political heft of a consolidated region will enable greater influence to be welded when dealing with the province and federal governments. At the same time a single decision making body will make issues like regional transit possible to undertake as the political road blocks and turf wars that currently exist will be eliminated.

The Aging of Windsor-Essex – Windsor-Essex much like the rest of Canada is going to face an aging population over the next 20 years but unlike other parts of Canada, Windsor has a few advantages. With inexpensive property rates, one of the most temperate climates  in Canada,and  over 200 km of shoreline our region is already attempting to attract retirees from the GTA. This attraction and aging population will result in a new demographic equilibrium developing in our region. Jobs that are currently filled will be freed up for young people, while additional retirees arriving in our region will lead to the development of new sectors of employment.

Certainly this aging population will result in additional demand for health care, recreation and tourism services for young people to find employment but it could be counterbalanced by contrasting interests in the political and social realm between the young and old. Simply put, between demographics and attraction efforts our region is likely to get older, which will bring its own opportunities and challenges for attracting and retaining young people.

Downtown Development – A common feature of many successful communities is a vibrant and strong downtown. Windsor’s downtown may be moving in the right direction with the University is moving down, a new city hall and plaza being considered and a new super sized flag on the waterfront are signals to be hopeful. Unfortunately to truly become vibrant we need to attract young people and see development in the downtown core, this requires investment.

One possible solution is to relieve development charges in the downtown core. Although there are already some preferred rates for the city core as well as additional relief through the city’s Community Improvement Plan (CIP). A debate is about to occur on this issue, although growth should pay for growth, the downtown core already has established infrastructure. So targeted subsidies to ensure the centre of our community isn’t gutted by suburban sprawl could be an important tool to bring development to the downtown.

Non-Automotive Connectivity – Unfortunately for our communities, our region was designed with one mode of transportation in mind, the car. Being Canada’s automotive capital for decades was never conducive for developing a strong regional transit network or non-automotive connectivity. Our bike network, although improving still features major gaps and transit continues to face issues.

Unfortunately there is no quick solution to these problems, bike paths and lanes have to be planned as a part of broader road and neighbourhood reconstruction. Transit faces greater challenges, with population centred in Windsor/Tecumseh/LaSalle from an economic standpoint it is hard to justify running buses out into the county on a regular basis, let alone between the smaller outlying communities. The only way that transit will become a defining feature of our region is if driving a car becomes less attractive and any discussion that does include methods to limit driving is doomed to fail.

Conclusions

As many of us know Windsor faces an uphill challenge, this was reinforced as just last week our city once again claimed the highest unemployment rate in Canada. In my opinion, the challenges that Windsor-Essex faces will take time to fix, which for many young people will be too little too late as they will give up and move on from our region.

In my opinion, Windsor is in a period of transition, although manufacturing will remain important to our region and economy it is a dying industry. The question is can we move beyond our past as the automotive capital of Canada into a brighter future? Many of the suggestions that I have offered aren’t original or groundbreaking but they are needed. Most importantly they are in the power of local city councilors, community organizations and Windsorites to undertake and accomplish.

We can’t control if a major company will come to Windsor-Essex nor can we ensure that young people will train in fields that are applicable to our economy. As a result, Windsor will likely continue to lose young people for the foreseeable future until a new equilibrium in our community is established. At some point through demographic and economic forces we will reach a population level where young people can stay in Windsor without much difficulty, we just haven’t reached that point yet.

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