Skip to content

Economic development as team sport

In defence of a regional plan to attract major corporate HQs – and what it could mean for Metro Vancouver

In a region comprised of 21 different cities, townships, villages and First Nations, it’s no wonder we have a difficult time finding consensus on key issues.

Take, for example, how challenging it has been over the decades to get these players to agree to develop a regional economic development strategy. How can they accomplish this stated goal when so many of them treat each other as competition to attract jobs and new investment?

I quickly became familiar with this issue in 2005, when I became Chief of Staff to the Mayor of Vancouver. Back then, not only did we lack a coordinated approach to economic development, but we were often caught working at cross purposes.

Cities would often unsuccessfully visit the same international business centers encouraging new investment to their city – when the reality was the only brand these business leaders had heard of was Vancouver.

It’s been well over a decade since efforts got underway to develop a regional economic development strategy. Sadly, we’ve made little progress.

To their credit, Metro Vancouver has endorsed something called the Prosperity Initiative. It ostensibly aims at getting more cooperation amongst the various key players in our region with a goal of increasing economic activity. It’s a model that has worked well in other regions throughout North America.

However lofty their goals, to date there are few tangible successes. The initiative is also not without its detractors, many of whom believe it’s not the regional governing body’s role.

Former Delta Mayor and now city councillor Lois Jackson went so far as to ask Metro Vancouver to stop funding the Prosperity Initiative in its entirety. In a December 7, 2018 article she is quoted in the Vancouver Sun as stating “that thing should be dropped today, don’t spend another cent on it.” She went on to say “why are we doing that? I don’t think we’re getting return on the dollar.”

Jackson is far from a lone voice. She and many others believe cities should go it alone to attract and retain jobs. Still others go one step further, arguing we don’t need headquarters moving here at all, saying that more HQs will only result in even less affordable housing and more traffic congestion.

While in no way dismissing those concerns, I’m left to wonder: by not developing or attracting larger companies, what is our region missing out on?

You need only drive a couple hours south to Seattle to see what opportunities might exist if we were the headquarters of companies like Microsoft, Boeing, or Amazon. They not only provide high-paying jobs, but play a big part in supporting local community and social initiatives.

In January Microsoft announced they are investing $500 million “to advance affordable housing solutions.” Their investment includes loans and grants to accelerate the construction of more affordable housing across their region.

The size and scope of their investment is simply hard to wrap your head around. They will fund “$225 million at lower than market rate returns to inject capital to subsidize the preservation and construction of middle-income housing.” They state their commitment will include “$25 million in philanthropic grants to address homelessness in the greater Seattle region.”

Last October, Amazon announced it was going to invest $2 million in the Seattle area to help support local students, targeted at “low-income students, including students experiencing homelessness.”

Another of Seattle’s corporate titans, Boeing in 2015 made a significant $30 million donation to the Museum of Flight to promote programs that support science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.

While we hear an abundance of negative things about large businesses locating in our region, there are also many ways they can work to help improve the social fabric. They can also financially support and sponsor social initiatives, arts, culture and other community-based programs on a scale that few, if any, small to mid-size businesses could do.

For now, the discussion of what more HQs in our region would look like will have to remain in the halls of academia. There appears to be no impetus on the part of the 21 entities that comprise Metro Vancouver to develop a plan anytime soon.

Daniel Fontaine is the Chief Executive Officer for a non-profit seniors care organization based in Burnaby. A former weekly civic affairs columnist for 24 Hours Newspaper, Fontaine has been a political commentator on Global TV and CKNW radio. In 2008 he co-founded one of Canada’s most popular civic affairs blogs. In 2012, Fontaine was awarded the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Medal for public service.