Category Archives: Economic Development

Network with local entrepreneurs at LAUNCH! New West

New West has a thriving culture of entrepreneurship, but I haven’t seen it celebrated and encouraged as much as I’d like.  Hopefully that’s about to change.

Small business is critical to New Westminster’s economy and culture. Of the 2864 business licenses issued to residents, 2452 have gone to small businesses, which means that approximately 85% of New West based businesses are small businesses. At both the municipal and provincial level, government is trying to do more to support local entrepreneurs launch, grow and thrive.

On Tuesday, March 26, Jen and I are hosting LAUNCH! New Westminster, a free, informal mixer for local business owners and ‘someday’ entrepreneurs to network with each other, learn more about City and Provincial initiatives to support small businesses, and share their thoughts and ideas on the subject.  The event is from 6-8pm in River Market‘s Food Hall. Light refreshments will be provided, and beer & wine will be available for purchase at a cash bar. While the event is free, registration is required as space is limited. Participants can register online using Eventbrite at http://businessinnewwest.eventbrite.ca.

The focus of the evening will be conversational, with lots of time for networking and dialogue. We’ll kick off with a brief Q&A with BC Minister of State for Small Business Naomi Yamamoto, as well as Acting Mayor Jaimie McEvoy, City of New Westminster Economic Development Manager Blair Fryer, and Councillor Bill Harper, who chairs the City’s Economic Development Committee. Jen and I will moderate the discussion (let us know in the comments or via Twitter if you’ve got any questions you want us to ask!). After that, it’s a party – go chat with friends, meet some new folks, or talk one-on-one with the Minister, Mayor or Councillor.

While the timing of the event is close to provincial election time, our goal isn’t to promote any particular candidate or party, but rather to open a dialogue that will hopefully continue well past the election. We’ll hear from the officials on what they are doing, but there will also be opportunities to ask questions and share ideas in open Q&A, and an ideas wall where people can write down their thoughts, suggestions and comments on small business issues.

From my perspective as an entrepreneur with a small business based in New West, I believe that attracting entrepreneurs and helping them to thrive and grow will benefit our community, culture and economy. It should be a cornerstone of the City’s economic development strategy. Hopefully this event will be a small step in the right direction. I hope to see you there!

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‘Royal City’ swag lights coming back to Columbia Street

Several weeks ago the City of New Westminster hosted an Economic Forum. The forum was intended to highlight the changes that have been occurring in the city and promote future economic opportunities. The keynote speaker at this event was real estate marketer Bob Rennie. At the end of his speech Mr. Rennie suggested that New Westminster ditch the Royal City moniker for something more contemporary. Although I was out of town during this speech, I could almost feel the collective groan in the community following this comment. Personally I do not agree that New West should ditch the ‘Royal City’ nickname, as it is engrained in the collective consciousness of our town. Having said that, and probably more to the point of Mr. Rennie, the city should be prepared to look at how and when this traditional moniker is used.

That same week on a seemingly unrelated topic, the City made the decision to install swag lights along Columbia Street.

Historic Seasonal Lighting over Columbia Street in the Downtown (Image courtesy VPL: 41806)

In the 1950’s swag lights hung over Columbia Street and contributed to a sense of pride in the community. During this time Columbia Street was known as the Miracle Mile for retail activity and drew in shoppers from all over the region.  The decades that followed were not so kind to this street though, as New Westminster largely became known as a small, old-fashioned, inaccessible community. Just as prominent retailers began to leave the street, so did the traditional crown swag lights.

Today Columbia Street is starting to make a rebound; one only needs to walk along the street to see that something is happening down there. So it seems only fitting that the city has decided to permanently install replica crown swag lights along the street. To be honest, I am not a big fan. I recognize that this is mainly a taste issue and my opinions are very subjective. I have spoken to many people and heard a range of comments from “I think they are going to look great down there” to “the design of the lights looks dated and old-fashioned”.  I am also probably the last person anyone should be getting style advice from. Having said that, I love cities and I take great passion in exploring the secrets behind what makes a city a great place.

I have been fortunate to visit a lot of great cities during my life and I don’t believe that these types of beautification programs are a key ingredient. I don’t need street banners telling me that I am in the big apple to appreciate New York. Nor do I don’t need signage indicating that I have entered the hipster capital of the world when I walk through Portland. There is something genuine about these cities and there is something genuine about New Westminster as well. Our historic buildings, our beautiful streetscapes and the river all tell the story of our community.

I also think we have lost an opportunity to allow ourselves to be inspired by the swag lights from a past era, but then to take this idea and design contemporary lighting that speaks to what the city is today and where we want to go in the future. New Westminster will always be the Royal City; I am just not convinced we need to put up ’50s-era stylized crown lights along Columbia Street to maintain our special place in the heart of Queen Victoria.

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The shops I wish we had in New West

If New West's fairy godmother offered to fast-track a few new shops, here's what I'd wish for ... (Photo: suttonhoo on Flickr)

If New West’s fairy godmother offered to fast-track a few new shops, here’s what I’d wish for … (Photo: suttonhoo on Flickr)

I have many favourite boutiques and restaurants in New West, and it seems to me there are more opening all the time. But if I had a fairy godmother who would fast-track a few new businesses for me, here is what I would wish for:

A truly great coffee shop
New West does not lack for coffee shops, but it does lack for great coffee. A JJ Bean would be awesome, or better yet, something like Raw Canvas in Yaletown, which combines great coffee with a great creative space (and turns into a wine bar / lounge at night!). I want it down on Columbia Street, which just seems like the right place for a cool cafe.

An indoor play space for kids (that is also comfortable for parents)
While restaurants and cafes with adjacent play areas are popular in other parts of the city (Kinder Cafe in Coquitlam, Rocky Mountain Flatbread on Main, Cafe Deux Soleils on Commercial), there isn’t anything in New West or nearby. There are also large indoor active play areas, Koko’s Activity Centre in Port Moody, Crash Crawly’s in Coquitlam and Jungle Jac’s in Pitt Meadows, but all of these are awful for parents – and far away to boot. I would love to see a fun place where kids can play on a rainy day and parents can sit in a comfortable chair and chat with each other over good quality coffee and snacks. Bonus points if the food is healthier / more interesting than just hot dogs and pizza. I had thought that the space where Dynamic Health and Fitness is now in Royal City Centre would have made a great large indoor play space, but River Market would be another good bet for a mid-sized space. A restaurant with a small play area could be done anytime by any of our existing restaurants. Yes, it’s fewer tables, but you wouldn’t believe the number of times I’ve overheard local parents (mostly moms) pining for such a space in New West.

A hip greasy spoon diner
Back when Will and I lived downtown (years ago!), we’d often head out to The Templeton for a hearty, hip breakfast on Granville St. This weekend when we were considering where to go in New West for breakfast, there was nowhere that quite fit the bill: independents like the Coming Home Cafe and The Hideout Cafe were likely to be closed (it was Remembrance Day) and we were left with various chain restaurants or the greasiest of greasy spoons (cheap, but no atmosphere and mediocre food). We ended up at The Boathouse for brunch, which was good in its own way, but we spent the meal daydreaming about what a great Columbia St. eatery would be like. Re-Up/Fathom sometimes has brunch on the weekends, and it is very good. Maybe the owners could be convinced to open a breakfast joint on Columbia next?

A brew pub
Last night Twitter erupted in disappointment when word got out that Brown’s Social House would be the pub tenant at the Brewery District in Sapperton. New West has a nascent craft beer community, including some intrepid home-brewers, and a local brew pub was on their wish list. I’m sure Brown’s will become a popular destination for a certain type of night out, but for now Hops remains the beer geek’s pub of choice in New West. But if there are any brew pub entrepreneurs out there reading this: Sapperton wants YOU.

A gift shop for men
We’ve got Brick and Mortar Living, Lofty Living, Cadeaux and Sonse Design (among others) where you can find a lovely little something for a woman, but men are much harder to shop for. I’d love to see someone open a Brick and Mortar-style boutique with little things for men to covet and women to gift. Ideally it would tap into the Art of Manliness movement – most men’s gift stores I’ve seen are full of unimaginative, uninspired garbage. In my opinion, this sort of store would do well on Columbia St., to tap into the wedding market and give brides something really nice to buy for their husbands, or grooms to select for their groomsmen.

An independent toy store
Yes, we had one of those (two if you count the oddly named & situated Kids Kloset), but since Pedagogy Toys closed, there’s been nowhere to go locally to buy gifts for kids. I love shopping at toy stores, and I would love to see someone give an independent toy store another go. I think a toy store would do well uptown. There are lots of parents and grandparents out and about during the day, heading to Moody Park and the Library, and I could see a lot of walk-by traffic from folks in the area to do banking, grocery shopping or other errands. A toy store in the vein of the Village Toy Shop in Port Moody would be perfect.

A neighbourhood coffee shop on 12th St
Poor, poor 12th St. It has struggled for so long and is in quite the slump right now. The hill really limits how far people will walk the street, especially without a chain of awesomeness to draw you up, one store at a time. Amber’s Choice is a nice cafe at the top of the hill, but if you’re around 6th Ave or below, it’s a long way to hike for a coffee and a muffin. John Ashdown’s old cafe, Village Coffee Lounge, was in a perfect spot for neighbourhood customers, and as a resident of the West End I certainly feel its absence. I’d love to see more tightly clustered retail on 12th St., particularly around the nexus of 12th St and 6th Ave, anchored by a great community cafe.

A large mixed-use development at 22nd St. SkyTrain
Here’s the biggest item on my wish list. I want to see 22nd St. SkyTrain station built up. Last year, three of the five or six houses immediately next to the SkyTrain were up for sale at the same time, and I was holding my breath hoping a developer would buy them – alas, not how that story turned out. Still, I think a smaller-scale Plaza 88 ‘Shops at New West Station’-type development would be great there. The proximity to downtown on the SkyTrain is awesome from that station, just 25 minutes to Waterfront and less than 20 to the edge of downtown. The price per square foot vs. travel time to downtown work would be ideal for many folks. Plus, it would provide some walkable and useful businesses for the existing local residents in the area – and potentially lift the fortunes of some of the 20th St businesses as well (which suffer from the same issues as 12th St).

There’s more of course. I’d love to see more wearable street fashion, not just bridal, and more of a visible arts presence. I miss having an art supply store on the street (years ago Full Spectrum Art Supply bowed to the bridal market and turned into Paper Poet, a wedding invitation & papercraft store), and I often wish for an independent bookstore of the type I enjoy in La Conner, WA (The Next Chapter, check it out if you are ever in the area. Fireplace, comfy chairs, decent coffee and an expertly curated selection of titles).

But that’s me. What would you like to see?

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Economic development will be vital to New Westminster’s future

Population growth by age in the New West trade area (including Burnaby and the Tri-Cities). Source: Urban Futures Institute

Population growth by age in the New West trade area (including Burnaby and the Tri-Cities). Source: Urban Futures Institute

At the New Westminster Economic Development Forum on Thursday, Andrew Ramlo from the Urban Futures Institute presented some unsettling insights on upcoming demographic changes in the city, and shared some truly geeky statistics illustrating New West’s economic strengths and weaknesses. A few pertinent highlights:

  • New Westminster, while attracting large numbers of adults in the prime working years between 20-55, will face the same tsunami of grey as the rest of the region when the Baby Boomers retire. Because of advances in health care, the population will remain overweighted by seniors for a long time.
  • New Westminster’s biggest economic ‘exports’ are health care and education. Fraser Health and Douglas College are the two biggest employers in the city. Public sector employers (school board, city staff, other government organizations) are also a huge source of jobs in the city.

To me, this highlights the need to focus now on economic development in New Westminster because:

  • Seniors pay lower property taxes while requiring more tax-funded services
  • Hospitals and educational institutions are exempt from paying property tax, so expanding these institutions, while providing jobs does not provide more tax revenue to the City (note: other levels of government sometimes provide grants in lieu of taxes to offset some of the cost to cities, but it doesn’t always make up for the lost revenue)
  • City governments depend on property taxes to fund services and infrastructure improvements, and are restricted from demanding other forms of taxation
  • New Westminster has one of the more dense concentrations of nonprofit organizations in the Lower Mainland, and most of those organizations don’t pay property taxes either
  • There is very little undeveloped land remaining in the city that could be built up in order to increase tax revenue

Tax-exempt nonprofits and institutions benefit from city services, yet don’t put money back in the pot. The rationale for this is that these types of institutions provide a great social benefit to the city and its public, which justifies exempting them from paying tax. That’s all well and good, but what happens when a city has more than its share of nonprofits within its borders, and then also suffers a drastic reduction in the size of the taxpaying population?

This makes me concerned about the long-term sustainability of the City’s finances. The City’s largest employers are not paying property tax, and ever-larger numbers of residents will be getting significant breaks on their tax bills as they reach retirement age. Meanwhile, there’s a ton of city infrastructure that needs upgrading, and provincial and federal governments keep offloading responsibility for vulnerable populations such as the mentally ill and the homeless to cities. That leaves an ever-larger tax burden for those of us who are under 50.

This is the same story across North America to some extent, but I believe that when you look at New West, we are currently not as well equipped to balance out declining residential property tax revenues with business tax revenue. Because we do have such a high concentration of nonprofit, government, healthcare and educational employers, and because we have so little commercial property, I fear this makes our city more vulnerable than others unless we take action now to strengthen our economy.

The answer isn’t just to attract younger people to pay the taxes the seniors are exempt from. There just aren’t enough young bodies to balance out the immense impact of the Baby Boomers. As I see it, the City needs to act now to diversify its sources of revenue. As I mentioned, the City is limited in its ability to impose new taxes, but it does have other sources of revenue already, including Development Cost Compensation (DCC) from new development, as well as grants from other levels of government, various licenses, fees and fines. But a key missing link in New Westminster is economic development, not just continuing to add more tax-exempt government-funded and non-profit jobs, but attracting more new for-profit businesses to this city.

Comparison of street front rental rates in the Lower Mainland. Source: InvestNewWest.ca

Comparison of street front rental rates in the Lower Mainland. Source: InvestNewWest.ca

New Westminster is succeeding at attracting some new large employers. The TransLink offices, for example, will be opening soon at Sapperton’s new Brewery District development, but as as I mentioned in my last post, we need to reach out to both large and small businesses. Currently I see a revolving door of small businesses in this town. We have some of the most affordable commercial rents in the Lower Mainland, and I think that attracts newbie entrepreneurs to jump in and invest without the financial cushion to soften the inevitable blows that every new business endures in the critical first few years. The City can’t take away the risks of business ownership, but it can provide more leadership in identifying the types of businesses that we believe would thrive here, actively recruit more employers to set up shop in New Westminster, and provide support to our current businesses to stay in New West and grow their businesses.

An artist's rendering of the new Civic Centre and Office Space. Source: City of New West.

An artist’s rendering of the new Civic Centre and Office Space. Source: City of New West.

This is also why I have come to believe that the City’s decision to proceed with building the class A office space above the new Civic Centre was a risk it had to take. One of the reasons why it was so important to incorporate commercial uses into the Civic Centre project was the implications for tax revenues: had the City built only the Civic Centre (and not the office tower & commercial spaces) the cost to build would have been lower, but the City would lose the opportunity not only to boost the economic activity of downtown (through jobs and in-town spending by employees & businesses) but also lose out on the estimated $660,000 in annual tax revenues from the office space. It would be just one more parcel of prime New Westminster real estate that’s a cost centre for the city, not a revenue-generator.

Today the economic development activities the city undertakes include offering information and statistics, help with site selection, providing business and community contacts and helping with government approvals. That’s good work, and business licenses have grown at three times the regional rate in New West between 2009 and 2011. But it is not enough.

New Westminster needs to present a vision that inspires businesses to want to locate here. It has to provide incentives for residents to shop here, and support local business in getting the word out beyond our borders. The business community can also do more to support each other, through partnerships, mentorships and cooperation.

In short, although we’ve come a long way from the ’90s decline, we still have a long way to go. Strengthening our economy is something that we can all play a part in by shopping locally, starting businesses here and spreading the gospel of New Westminster beyond our borders to let the world know how great this city is to live, work and play.

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Visions of the ‘new’ New West

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.

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