This interview is the first in a series that will introduce (or re-introduce) CityCaucus.com readers to key decision makers, opinion leaders and folks with diverse and interesting views. Let us know what you think – and who you'd like to hear from!
I had the opportunity to chat with Evi Mustel, one of the leading market researchers in BC and a go-to person who checks the pulse of civic issues in Vancouver. Besides running Mustel Group, Evi sits on the Board of both the YMCA of Greater Vancouver and the Vancouver Board of Trade, and is a member of the Women’s Leadership Circle Advisory Board.
So Evi, what do you see as the two biggest issues facing the City of Vancouver?
Social issues and homelessness are issues that always come up when we ask this question, although there has been some progress, there is still disagreement about achieving the right end and there still needs to be resolution. But there is a hidden issue that I'm hearing more about, and that is civic budgeting. I'm always amazed by how willing people are to pay municipal taxes. Any civic referendum that I've seen has been passed and there doesn't seem to be a strong pressure to lower taxes, especially with housing prices having gone up so much. People are now getting their appraisals, which have gone down, but now will see that their taxes have gone up. I see it as a real emerging issue.
Will people finally actually care about the civic budget process?
I think we'll see much more interest, now that house prices are down and job security is down; people are going to start to pay attention. It should become a much bigger issue, politically. The Fair Tax Coalition, on the business side, has had success with their advocacy role. I think we`ll start to see the residents pushing back now too.
What issues in the rest of Metro Vancouver?
Well, I live in the City of Vancouver and have my business in Vancouver. I have been hearing rumblings on the budget and tax side from West Vancouver and some other municipalities. There just isn't the same accountability in the process as there is in the provincial and federal systems. I think we will not have the same willingness to pay as we have always had. And any Olympic overruns will make it worse.
Do you think we'll see overruns?
Our polling usually shows that transportation in a key issue for Metro Vancouver residents. There is a real sense that we aren't keeping up with infrastructure building and spending. What really changed people's driving behaviour was congestion, more so than gas prices. Even when gas prices were up 40-50% last year, we heard that congestion was the reason people weren't driving. When gas prices finally hit $1.50, then we saw it finally hit as a reason for people to drive less.
We surveyed last year about commute time and people were telling us that their time to downtown had increased by 50%. Burrard Street is just terrible now, but partly due to the Cambie Street construction.
The test of the bike lanes on Burrard Street is going to be very interesting. Right now the City is hearing from a vocal minority of bikers, motorists have been pretty quiet. But I would expect to see that silent majority will start kicking and streaming if the traffic gets worse.
What could be done to improve the economic climate in Vancouver for small and medium business?
We need more optimism. The more we talk about gloom and doom, the worse it gets. It really is a self- fulfilling prophecy. Number one is getting out and improving consumer and business confidence. Once people feel we have turned the corner, than they`ll buy houses and those big ticket items. Some things are good: interest rates low, gas prices are low, the rental market is opening up. Not too many people BC have lost jobs. There has really been an overreaction to what has gone on. Business need to realize that business isn't going to walk through doors and that they need to really focus on service, quality and value.
It is key that government show leadership on the issue. The Federal government needs to find balance between "everything is ok" and "everything is bad" and should give some sense that “we have plan, and we’ll come out stronger and better...and greener”. There are things to feel good about.
Do you feel that the business community as a whole is engaged in the political process (civically)?
Many owners of small business in Vancouver also live in Vancouver as well. Up until the last few years, really until the City started to engage small business in budget consultations, people seemed not to be engaged. We do those surveys for the budget and until recently have really seen residents involved, rather than business. The exception might be people like those behind the Fair Tax Coalition.
If you could give advice to the new council and mayor, what would you suggest?
I think one thing that the new council and mayor need to keep in mind is something that I like to say quite often: "governments aren't elected, they are defeated." A number of council members have strong links to past parties and movements, and in the municipal world, one really needs to leave those party links behind and focus on running the city. Voters want leadership to balance the economic issues with the social issues. People want centre of road government: to balance the two, and not feel they have to choose. The reason that many of the new council were elected wasn't because of their credentials, but it was more about change, get the NPA out. I'd advise them to keep that in mind and don't take the win as an endorsement of policies and views. That would be a recipe for disaster and their presence at City Hall would be short-lived.
In your opinion, what aspect of Vancouver is head and shoulders above the rest?
We have done polling on this issue. Back during the whole "no fun city" issue, the Province Newspaper hired us to do polling on what we could do to make the city more fun. People really rejected that media term and told us that Vancouver IS a fun city and that it is very attractive for nature and the outdoors. We really have an abundance of outdoor activities year-round.
Personally, I've been traveling recently, and I've really noticed what a great restaurant scene we have here. Even compared to Italy, Greece, Europe. Our Italian restaurants are better than anything in Italy. Stepho's on Davie is better than anything we had in Greece. In Vancouver, kids don't go to McDonald's, they go for sushi.