When Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson leads the city’s most ambitious business and cultural mission to China in November, it will be a departure in more ways than one. Compared to its rivals, Western Canada’s largest metropolis has never made economic development much of a priority. And while the attention to trade and investment is welcome, some in the business community wonder exactly whose interests the trip will serve.
The nine-day junket includes elected officials from only the City of Vancouver—none from the nearly two dozen surrounding municipalities that account for three-quarters of Metro Vancouver’s population and at least half its jobs. The city’s decision to go it alone is the latest example of why business leaders believe the region isn’t attracting as much investment as it could.
“We have 21 municipalities, and none of them work together. That’s an economic disadvantage for each of the 21 municipalities and for British Columbia,” says Greg D’Avignon, president and CEO of the Business Council of B.C. That balkanization is evident in the City of Vancouver’s paltry economic development budget, which sits at about $2.7 million. While that’s nearly double what it was in 2008, it pales in comparison to Calgary Economic Development’s $7.6-million budget and the $35 million the Edmonton Economic Development Corp. will spend this year.
While representing the vast majority of its metro region, Calgary Economic Development also benefits from diversified funding from the city, private industry and other levels of government. In Vancouver, economic development is almost entirely paid for by the city. “We don’t see the kind of matching dollars that other cities across Canada and internationally receive,” says Robertson. “We’re punching above our weight, given the resources we have to work with.”
Robertson says the city hasn’t pursued funding from business, which is reluctant to contribute to just one of several area municipalities. Business would be “front and centre” were the metro municipalities to band together to help grow the regional economy, D’Avignon insists.
Robertson’s economic vision places special emphasis on the clean-tech sector, part of his drive to make Vancouver the world’s greenest city by 2020. He’s been less favourably disposed to the resource and transportation industries that still form the backbone of the regional economy, coming out against Kinder Morgan’s Trans-Mountain oil pipeline expansion, for example. Speaking to the Vancouver Board of Trade in advance of the China mission, he was more nuanced: “It’s really about being a diverse economy and ensuring that all of these industries are compatible here in Vancouver.”
However, Robertson’s vision stands out only in the absence of a common regional voice. “There’s still a prevailing view that it’s a privilege to do business in Vancouver, and all we need to do is be Vancouver and people are going to invest here. That’s not the case and hasn’t been for some time,” says D’Avignon. “We are caught up in a model from the 1960s that frankly isn’t competitive if we don’t start working together.”