Over the weekend I attended two sold-out events that are potentially significant bellwethers for the future of our town. The first, a $175-a-plate business and networking luncheon, was a clear signal that New Westminster is open for business. The second, a $30-per-ticket gala celebrating young entrepreneurs and community organizers, showed that the next generation of leaders are already making an impact on this city.
On Thursday morning, a crowd of developers, large business owners, banks and local employers packed La Perla Ballroom for the New Westminster Economic Forum to hear a demographer, several of the City’s largest employers, a developer and famed Vancouver condo marketer Bob Rennie share their predictions on the shape of the “new” New West.
As a symbol of the City’s interest in strengthening our local economy, I thought the event was a great success. Not only was it sold out, but many more citizens and business owners were interested and would have attended had the ticket price been less steep and/or if space had been available. But I also thought that the City’s economic development office missed an opportunity to reach out to that packed house of potential investors in our City and inspire them to action.
The event was an informative soft sell, sharing demographic trends and anecdotes from Fraser Health, Douglas College, Lowes and Bob Rennie about their organizations’ investments, activites and expansions in New Westminster. The City’s Director of Development Services, Lisa Spitale, also shared some highlights of the City’s vision for future development, particularly in the downtown. But an event like this should be more than informative. It should be persuasive and connective. articulating a compelling vision and call to action that inspires business owners to invest in the city, and acting as a force multiplier to connect people together to do business, form partnerships and become aware of relevant organizations, City resources and services in town.
The information presented at the event did change how I understand our city’s economy. Our largest employers and biggest ‘exports’ are in health care and education (many people from other parts of the Lower Mainland come here to access those services). While this helped me to gain new respect for Royal Columbian Hospital and Douglas College’s positive contributions to our local economy as employers and magnets drawing people from other parts of the Lower Mainland, I felt it also illustrated New Westminster’s weaknesses in other sectors. New Westminster will remain a bedroom community unless we can generate sufficient employment opportunities in sectors beyond health care and education.
On Saturday, a very different event illustrated the new New West in action when almost 200 people filled the ballroom at the Inn At The Quay to recognize 25 of New Westminster’s talented up-and-comers at the NextUP gala organized by NEXT New West and sponsored by The New Westminster Newsleader. The themes in this event were very different.
The event was light on information, but heavy on inspiration. The guest speaker, East Van bootstrapper Mark Brand, shared his story about launching two successful restaurants in the Downtown East Side before buying the legendary Save-On Meats butcher shop and diner in the neighbourhood. His message for New West was to believe in your neighbourhood and take the risk to invest in your community. He also advocated integrating marginalized residents in community transformation, hiring what he called ‘barrier’ employees, for example, who have physical or mental disabilities, or who are recovering from addiction.
The room was full of young talent fired up with big dreams, and I believe the message took root, reinforced by the example of the 25 go-getters recognized at the gala. I was one of those 25, and what I found remarkable was how diverse the activities were of those people on the list: business owners, volunteers, community organizers, sports advocates, and more. The challenge for New Westminster will be to support the crazy dreamers who take the chance to start something new, and provide them with resources and connections that will help small initiatives grow large.
On Thursday and Saturday I witnessed two separate spheres of activity that will lead to positive growth and change in our city. What’s needed is to bridge the two. We had an economic development forum that lacked vision and a celebration of talent with more potential than proof. The economic forum made absolutely no mention of the role of small business in our city, while the NextUP event lionized initiative but not consistency. What New West needs is a balance, blending the tried and true with the fresh and new.
Small businesses and large are both vital to New Westminster’s future. New ideas and risk-takers are essential to progress, but as our city’s long list of failed small businesses shows, there’s a lot more to success than a promising start.