Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Could America Learn From Moncton?

"It's my responsibility as a singer-songwriter to report the news"

In some respects, the economic struggle America is fighting today is no different than the challenge a modest Maritime city faced in the mid 1980’s.

About thirty years ago, the small town of Moncton, New Brunswick was far different from what we see today. When the CNR Shops closed for good in the late 80s, things looked mighty bleak for a community that staked it's brand on being the "Hub of the Maritimes".

Moncton's downtown took on the appearance of a deserted Montana mining town with saloon doors blowing in the wind and tumbleweed dancing in the streets. There was more plywood than windows on Main Street storefronts. The heart of the city was boarded up in such a way that Moncton resembled Berlin after the bombing. CFB Moncton was also closed, after defence cutbacks resulting from the end of the Cold War. Rock bottom may have been reached in the form of a lacklustre promotional slogan from the city: "Greater Moncton - We're OK".

But, it wasn't before long a small group of Moncton's movers and shakers started doing their thing. Personal and political interests were placed on the shelf. An economic summit sparked a steady upward climb in civic spirit.

What followed is known nationwide as the "Moncton Miracle," one of Canada’s best examples of how a community can overcome economic disaster and rise again by building on its strengths. Frank McKenna's government lured key players in the call centre industry as the city transitioned from the old economy to a more modern one. Since then, this bilingual community has become a major Canadian customer contact and back office center, powering the creation of 20,000 new jobs, largely in management, finance, health services, technology and education.

Meanwhile, south of the border, our red-white-and blue friends find themselves in a money mess the likes of which you and I have never witnessed in our lifetime. The sub-prime mortgage crisis. Hedge funds built on flimsy foundations of mortgage-backed quicksand. Little pink houses foreclosing by the bushel. Trillion dollar deficits and the paper in fire infusion of billions in tax dollars to rescue private corporations.

An American-made fantasy economy where profits are private and losses are public.

How did this happen?

Running low on cash, America tells the shopkeeper to put it on her charge account. He gladly complies making a tidy profit on the interest. But she still hungers for more and as time passes, less goes to buying groceries and more is needed to pay down the credit cards. Eventually, she can't make the payments on the interest she owes. The walls come crumblin' down and America collapses in an economic earthquake, sending shock waves around the world.

The city of Moncton, NB can relate.

The scale and circumstances might be different, but the patterns for recovery are probably quite similar. Specifically, in reference to the intangible elements required to turn things around.

Back in the Eighties, many a Monctonian was screaming for financial gifts from Ottawa to replace the CN Shops and other traditional industries. Instead of dollars to create dead-end jobs, the feds offered the City infrastructure money to rebuild sidewalks and renew streetscapes. It was this refusal to underwrite any type of bailout, that forced Moncton's hand to make lemonade out of federal funding lemons.

When the squeeze was on, Moncton developed a juiced attitude towards self directed economic growth.

And has been savoring the benefits ever since:

- In 2009, the City of Moncton has been named one of the World's Top 7 Intelligent Cities by the Intelligent Community Forum, an international think tank that monitors job creation and economic development in the broadband economy.

- In 2008, KPMG ranked Moncton as the lowest cost location for business among urban centers in Atlantic Canada and New England for the second consecutive time.

- In 2008, the Economic Development Association of Canada (EDAC)awarded the City of Moncton with its Canada Marketing Award in 2008 for its new Corporate Brand.

- In 2004, Canadian Business Magazine ranked Moncton “The Best Place to do Business in Canada”. Since then, Moncton has remained on CBM's Top-10 list for five consecutive years.

There have been many other accolades and endorsements, but perhaps none greater than when the Mick, Keith & the Stones rolled into town on the "Bigger Bang" tour in September of 2005 to a crowd of more than 80,000 at the Magnetic Hill concert site. The same venue that will feature acts such as Bon Jovi and AC/DC later this summer.

Moncton, it would appear, is rocking harder than ever.

Is there something America could learn from this story?

A way for the home of the brave to regain the swagger and spirit of R.O.C.K. in the USA?

The City of Moncton's Director of Economic Development, Ben Champoux offers this perspective:

"In short, it's about culture. Moncton is more 'socialist' but in the positive sense of the term, where all players are still capable of efficiently working together for the greater good of the community. It's the realization that each of us can be strong by ourselves, but exponentially more powerful as a group. In the USA, generally speaking, an addiction to 'capitalism' (more in the negative sense)would not have allowed them to have to wisdom to approach Moncton's challenges 20 years ago, and find a solution. It is that same addiction to 'capitalism' that has led them to the financial mess they are in now".

Champoux will be among a civic delegation to the Intelligent Community Forum 2009 Conference later this week in New York City. Premier Shawn Graham and Minister Greg Byrne will also be on hand with Mayor George LeBlanc and the rest of the Moncton contingent.

A bunch of small town guys who dream big.

Who never forget where they came from.

“Everything will be all right. We do have the greatest economic machine that man has ever created. We started with 4 million people back in 1790 and look where we’ve come. And it wasn’t because we were smarter than other people. It wasn’t because our land was more fertile or we had more minerals or our climate was more favorable. We had a system that worked. It unleashed the human potential. It didn’t work every year. We had 6 ‘panics’ in the 19th century. In the 20th century we had the Great Depression, World Wars, all kinds of things. But we have a system – largely free market, rule of law, equality of opportunity – all of those things that cause the potential of humans to get unleashed. And we’re far from done. Your kids will live better than mine. Your grandchildren will live better than your kids. There’s no question about that. But the machine gets gummed up from time to time. If you take the bulk of those centuries, probably 15 years were bad years. But we go forward.”

P.S. If you want to vote and help a small town's chances here is the official web site: http://www.intelligentcommunity.org/ – once there, you can cast your vote by clicking on the link on the upper right side of your screen.

Moncton, New Brunswick.

John Cougar Mellencamp would like it here.



Supra said...

Wow Gair! The best one yet, simply awesome! It would be a shame if that didn't reach a larger audience like the National Post, Globe & Mail or NY Times...you get my drift. JC Mellencamp...brilliant!

Larry Kelly

Supra said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

Gair what a spectacular post, it is so inspiring and really gets to the heart of the success of our little city that could. I will definitely tweet this link to all my friends. way to go! Awesome.

Kim Eagles

Gair Maxwell said...

Thanks for the kind words Larry & Kim.

Really appreciate the positive feedback and anything you guys can do to spread the word and help Moncton's chances in the ICF competitition would be great.

I was at the Capitol Theatre presentation a few weeks back when Robert Bell of the ICF was a guest in our city and I don't know that I ever felt more proud to be a Monctonian. We have accomplished so much since being down and out; that one can't help feel other communities and even entire nations could borrow a page from Moncton's success manual.