Canada's Best Cities: Saint John Vs. Moncton

One city rocks, the other rolls.

Intro | The winner | Toronto vs. Mississauga | Calgary vs. Edmonton | Saint John vs. Moncton | Comeback city

Sure, Moncton may have hosted nearly 85,000 Rolling Stones fans when the legendary rock band pulled into town for its first ever Atlantic Canada concert in early September. But make no mistake, Saint Johners weren't jealous. “Saint John got Dolly Parton the same week,” asserts Nancy Thorne, chair of the Saint John Board of Trade. “There is enough stuff out there for all of us.”

While comparing Parton to the Stones is a bit of a stretch, Thorne's enthusiasm regarding the prospects for business in Saint John is firmly rooted in reality. The ongoing rivalry between Moncton, a bilingual city with a substantial Acadian population, and Saint John, a port city settled by Loyalists, refuses to die, but the latter is edging out Moncton in the battle for new business in New Brunswick.

One reason Saint John is winning is energy. The province recently committed to refurbishing the city's Point Lepreau nuclear power plant, and construction of the Canaport liquefied natural gas terminal began in mid-September. Combined, the two projects will pump $3 billion in capital expenditure into the local energy sector over the next three years and help position the oceanside city as one of the Eastern Seaboard's influential energy generation, processing and distribution hubs. Meanwhile, the call-centre boom that benefited Moncton over the past decade is fading. “Existing ones are expanding and new ones are still coming,” says Pamela MacFarlane, research director with Colliers International (Atlantic) Inc., “but it is not as prolific as in past years. The current government is not pushing in the same way.”

What's more, now that the Canadian and U.S. governments are committed to building a new border crossing for trucks at St. Stephen, N.B. — a crossing that feeds into Saint John — the coastal city is also hoping to lay claim to the coveted hub status that interior Moncton historically holds. “We will be the access for all traffic going back and forth between New England and Atlantic Canada,” says Thorne.

It's essential to remember that the Greater Moncton International Airport, regional base for FedEx and Purolator, is larger than that of Saint John, where fog rules the runways, and that Moncton is situated squarely on the Trans-Canada Highway, anchoring the Moncton-Truro-Halifax corridor. It's hard to imagine Saint John will ever entirely replace Moncton as Atlantic Canada's distribution centre, but it is worth considering.

The Greater Moncton Area isn't asleep at the wheel. Molson Canada broke ground on a new plant this summer, Apex Industries Inc. is making steel beams for the New York Times' newest building, and Monctonians can lord their big-box Costco over Saint Johners. As well, a certain sophistication prevails in a city where French and English cultures co-exist.

But Saint John is pushing ahead. An aggressive immigration strategy is attracting Asians — “I am now offering services in Korean and Chinese,” says Thorne, who is also president of Century 21 Real Estate River-Valley Realty Ltd. — and outlying communities are expanding. Meanwhile, folks like Kevin Francis are bringing high-tech operations to the city. The CEO of CenterBeam Inc., a California-based IT firm, opened an advanced client-support centre in Saint John in 2003 and is now searching for more employees. “Saint John has diversified its economy,” says Francis. “It has become a major centre in terms of technology and the new economy.”