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Finlayson & Peacock Op-Ed: Metro Vancouver needs a cohesive economic development plan (Business in Vancouver)

In today’s global economy, the competition for talent, investment and high-value business activity increasingly is playing out at the metropolitan level. According to the Brookings Institution’s Global Metro Monitor, the 300 biggest cities account for almost half of world production and consumption, despite being home to only one-fifth of the population. Canada has six metro areas big enough to rank in Brookings’ top-300 list: Toronto, Montreal, Greater Vancouver, Ottawa-Gatineau, Calgary and Edmonton.

The idea of the “global city” or “global city-region,” first coined by sociologist Saskia Sassen more than two decades ago, has been taken up and refined by numerous academic researchers, business analysts and policy-makers. In B.C., Metro Vancouver – consisting of more than 20 municipalities with a combined population of 2.5 million – clearly fits the definition of a global city-region, even though few local residents or political leaders appear to think in these terms.

Two notable characteristics of thriving global city-regions are that they serve as trading hubs for the provinces/states/countries in which they are located, and they host a sizable number of export-focused industries and firms. Engaging in trade and other forms of commerce with outside markets benefits regional economies by generating external income and bringing in new wealth, ideas and knowledge.

Understanding the role of international and interprovincial trade in underpinning the economic well-being of Metro Vancouver has been hampered by the region’s fragmentation into a multiplicity of distinct cities and towns – all overseen by a regional government that conspicuously lacks authority in matters such as economic development, trade, and business and investment attraction.

Metro Vancouver has suffered from having no defined economic development plan, export strategy or relevant programming. Several individual municipalities maintain their own economic agencies, but there has been almost no co-   ordination or pooling of resources among them. And some, like the Vancouver Economic Commission, mainly serve as political instruments of sitting mayors and have struggled to gain traction with the local corporate community.

However, spearheaded by current Metro Vancouver board chairman and Port Coquitlam Mayor Greg Moore, some progress is being made in addressing these shortfalls. Moore has been leading an effort to launch the Regional Prosperity Initiative to further region-wide co-operation, bolster the economy and improve livability.

The initiative is also looking at ways to reduce costs for businesses operating in more than one municipality, by exploring options like mobile business licences and the streamlining of permitting processes. Over time, there might also be opportunities to reduce taxpayer costs by moving to shared procurement and service delivery models in selected areas.

If Metro Vancouver policymakers and business leaders hope to advance prosperity in the region, they will need to bring greater coherence to the economic development and trade/investment promotion work already undertaken by individual municipalities.

The B.C. government should support such efforts, given the Lower Mainland’s demographic heft and vital contributions to the provincial economy. B.C. as a whole will reap dividends from a diverse and growing Lower Mainland economy that is home to more globally competitive firms.

In our view, a top priority should be leveraging Metro Vancouver’s existing assets and economic base to build stronger clusters of traded industries capable of selling in external markets. This is the most promising way to boost incomes and sustain more high-paying jobs in the region.

Among the traded industries with a sizable presence in the Vancouver area are advanced manufacturing; post-secondary education and research; information and communications technologies; tourism; scientific, technical and environmental services; finance; agri-food production; wireless products and technologies; health research and the life sciences; and engineering and other professional services.

Transportation, logistics and trade-related infrastructure and services are also a critical part of Metro Vancouver’s export economy. All of these industry clusters have upside potential linked to the growth of global demand and the steady expansion of Asia’s middle-class population.

A co-ordinated regional strategy that combines resources to enhance the competitiveness of traded industry clusters would benefit the entire province while increasing incomes and the quality of jobs in B.C.’s dominant population centre. Having a credible and cohesive regional voice, something that to date has been absent, can also assist in winning greater political attention and funding from senior levels of government.

There is much to be gained by establishing an economic development organization that fosters co-operation across municipalities, gives primacy to regional rather than individual municipal interests and is mandated to strengthen prosperity across Metro Vancouver. 

Jock Finlayson is the Business Council of British Columbia’s executive vice-president and chief policy officer; Ken Peacock is the council’s chief economist.

As published by Business in Vancouver