Just got back from the roast of Francis McGuire – the former Deputy Minister of Economic Development under McKenna and for awhile my boss (at least way up on the chain). He’s a good guy and I am happy for him.
But an old colleague mused in conversation that if things had stayed on the trajectory, New Brunswick would have been far, far ahead in its economic development that it is today.
His logic – call centres to IT outsourcing to data centres etc. Waffle manufacturing to auto manufacturing, etc. An evolutionary path. We convinced IBM, Xerox, UPS, FedEx, etc. to put their call centres here – the next step would have been more value added stuff.
But I don’t know. Nothing follows a linear trajectory. Service New Brunswick was the absolute leading edge in eGovernment in the mid 1990s and now, I am told, that in Eastern European cities you can get a smart card to pay for the bus and other city services with one microchip. You can pay for parking your car in a city lot with your cel phone. In Eastern Europe.
We need a new line of trajectory. We can learn from Francis and Mckenna for their hustle and can-do attitude but we also need to think bigger. We need to invest in infrastructure. We need to imagine how can keep our power rates competitive to sustain and attract industry. That gang wasn’t about investing in the future. It was about getting through the recession of the early 1990s. It was about selling what we had (the call centre value proposition) not about real investments in building a broader value proposition for our economic development.
Consider Mercedes-Benz. I wrote the proposal for the Mercedes auto plant in 1994. It eventually went to South Carolina – with a $200 million ‘incentive’ package that basically involved building the infrastructure that the company needed to move there (extending runways, training the people, free land, etc.). New Brunswick would never have done anything like that. Not then. Not now.
And as for Mercedes? 15 auto plants have set up in the southern US since then with several hundred billion in new investment and tens of thousands of jobs.
And one other late night stat for you to chew on. Since we ‘lost’ (meaning never really tried) the Mercedes plant, there has been over $6 billion in Employment Insurance payments to people in New Brunswick – mostly seasonal EI payments to pay people not to work. We had an opportunity in the mid 1990s at the front end of Canada’s longest sustained period of economic growth in its history (14 straight years without a recession) to really get it done. And we didn’t. Now we are on the tail end of that economic boom, with a declining population, rapidly increasing government spending and almost no new private sector economic development (with the limited exception of the energy thing in SJ).
Good night and good luck.