Montreal pre-2002 merger courtesy Wikipedia
In 2007 I had the opportunity to partake in a delegation that visited Montreal to determine the benefits and downsides of amalgamation. Depending on who you spoke to, either Montreal was heading for a positive more prosperous future, or it was going to hell in a handbasket. I believe the truth lies somewhere in the middle.
After sitting through dozens of briefings regarding how over 20 city administrations were forced to amalgamate, I couldn’t help but think how long it would take for cities in the metro Vancouver area to consider their options. Besides Toronto and Montreal, Vancouver is the only Canadian city where this type of amalgamation would realistically make sense.
Metro Vancouver faces some serious issues in the next decade. One of those 'sleeper' issues is the fact that unlike Toronto and Montreal, Vancouver does not have a regional economic development strategy. This is clearly a serious mistake for a region about to play host to the 2010 Olympic and Paralympic Games next year.
I have some personal experience (aka scars) on this file when in 2006 I was asked by Vancouver’s Mayor to initiate a dialogue with the Mayors of Surrey and Richmond to determine if we had some common interests. A number of meetings took place over the course of a year.
Vancouver, Richmond and Surrey incorporate the downtown business core, ports, airports, border crossings, etc. You would think it would be simple for these three cities to sit down and come up with a joint economic development plan to help promote our region abroad. Unfortunately, it wasn't that easy.
I quickly realized that due to the lack of amalgamation, each city remains fiercely competitive when it comes to the economic development file. I contend that most cities suffer from “civic myopicosis” - a medical condition which doesn’t allow them to think beyond their borders.
So it should come as no surprise when a multi-national company makes an investment in a new R & D facility in Richmond, it is perceived as “stealing jobs” from Surrey and vice-versa.
There are a few visionary folks out there who have been pushing the cause forward. One of them is Mark Betteridge, a highly regarded member of Vancouver Economic Development Commission.
He has been doggedly pursuing this file for years under the auspices of the Greater Vancouver Economic Development Initiative. Unfortunately, he discovered it takes a herculean amount of political leadership to realize the benefits of a coordinated regional economic development strategy.
Is the Montreal or Toronto version of amalgamation going to fly in metro Vancouver? Likely not in my lifetime, unless it is imposed on them as was the case in Ontario and Quebec. However, there are some key areas like economic development where joint efforts must be taken now, if cities in the Vancouver region want to retain their competitive edge.
I can report that my early meetings with Richmond and Surrey did eventually result in them signing a memorandum of understanding with Vancouver to promote economic development. Kudos to Watts and Brodie for taking this step. But a lot more must be done.
The Vancouver region needs to develop a cohesive regional economic development strategy signed on by every Mayor and Council. They need look look beyond their three year terms, and their borders.
Metro Vancouver cities also need to pro-actively seek out new investment opportunities. They also need to speak with one voice to the international business community who can invest almost anywhere they choose in this global marketplace. It simply doesn't make good business sense to have dozens of Metro Vancouver mayors selling the benefits of their respective cities to the CEO of an international corporation.
If cities within the Metro Vancouver region ever got really serious about the economic development file, I suspect that senior levels of government would step up in a big way to support them. That's been the case for the Toronto and Montreal regions for years, and their economies have benefitted as a result.
It's a shame when the world's business leaders arrive here in 2010, Metro Vancouver won’t have a coordinated business message to deliver. As they say, capitalizing on the Games is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, let’s hope the region’s leadership haven't missed the boat on this one.