Big versus small

I had a very interesting chat yesterday with a former provincial economic development guy. He was musing about the election, economic development and the province’s future. Good insight to be sure.

But almost by accident, I casually asked him what his prescription would be for economic development in northern New Brunswick?

And it was like looking in a mirror.

He said what the north needs is ‘anchor’ economic development projects.

Sound familiar?

He said over the last six years or so, the Lord government has spent at least $100 million in ‘economic development’ in the north and what has it achieved? A few Tory friendly firms got some money and there were a number of new start up firms. Start ups, he said, that have a 15% chance of survival.

Anchor project, because of the sheer size of capital investment ($500m+), have a 98% chance of survival and further have a shelf life of typically between 25-30 years.

He went further.

He said it would have been distinctly possible to attract an automobile manufacturing plant to northern New Brunswick during Lord’s tenure as Premier. He said that it could have been located somewhere outside Bathurst and it would have drawn workers from across the region.

He had it well thought out. The Port of Belledune would have to be upgraded to handle auto parts shipments but the port would become relevant. The rail line goes right through the region so parts shipped by rail would have no problem and the cars shipped out by rail would also have no problem.

Between the plant, the suppliers that set up and the other spinoff jobs in the economy, this would create between 2,000 and 3,000 high paying jobs in the region. Jobs with a 25-30 year shelf life.

He also thought the Feds would have supported the project if the province had brought them a good proposal. After all, they put billions into the auto, aero and high tech sectors in Ontario and Quebec since Lord came to power.

But it didn’t happen and we both lamented that fact.

But my points are these:

There would be tremendous political advantage to the party that could make this happen. Yeah, to be sure, Ontario would freak. NB-born Buzz Hargrove would fight it every step of the way. But ultimately, every new auto plant in the US over the past 15 years has gone into economically challenged areas such as Louisiana, South Carolina, Alabama and Kentucky. In Canada over the past 15 years every new auto investment has gone into the economically challenged area of southern Ontario.

I have said this on may occasions. It’s up to the province to come up with good ideas and ask the Feds to partner with them. Waiting for the Feds to ‘impose’ economic development on Atlantic Canada has been a 125 year wait, Mr. Rip Van Winkle.

That’s what I hate about ‘polls’. Sure, matters of the economy rank 5th or 6th in most of the polls – the polls that the Tories ruled by (judging by their priorities). But no poll every asked the question:

Do you support your government attracting 2,500 new, high paying jobs that will reinvigorate your economy and give your kids the opportunity to stay home and work rather than move to Alberta?

What do you think would be the response rate in Tracadie to that?

I know that’s an absurd question but I am trying to – in a sarcastic way – highlight that voters are not really given clear choices in those generic polls about what concerns them.

Finally, to all those who would say a plant like this should go in Sussex or Saint John or somewhere south – that’s not the point of this blog.

Where plants get sited is almost always a matter of politics.

I just want them in New Brunswick.