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.

NEXT New West fall kickoff event at Red Brick Oct. 5

Photo: Red Brick
Photo: Red Brick

If I had an HGTV producer’s blank cheque to go redecorate my living room, my first stop would be Red Brick. The arcane language of interior design escapes me, but suffice it to say that almost everything in the new-ish store on Carnarvon St. is just lovely – and in many cases, surprisingly affordable. In addition to sofas, bedframes, chairs and tables, Red Brick carries a carefully curated selection of lamps, clocks, mirrors, quirky knick-knacks, gifts and cards.

On October 5 from 5:30-7:30pm, the store will host the fall kickoff event for NEXT New West, a monthly casual social group for young professionals. Catered by nearby Quantum Deli & Bistro, the free event will be an easygoing opportunity to mingle and meet other young adults living or working in New Westminster, wine glass in hand. Plus, any purchases made that evening will be 10% off.

Unlike most networking events, there isn’t a lot of business card-swapping and smarmy sales pitches are strongly discouraged. NEXT events are social first, business second. There will be a brief pause in the party for the quarterly ‘members spotlight,’ in which three NEXT members will have two or three minutes each to introduce themselves and share what they do professionally in the city. That concludes the formal program.

If you’re planning to attend, please RSVP to nextnw@gmail.com.

Event Details:

  • What: NEXT NW Fall Kick Off Event, hosted by Red Brick
  • When: Wednesday October 5th, 2011, 5:30-7:30pm

Meet New Westminster federal election candidates April 20 at La Rustica

Confrontational politics leaves a bitter taste. I can’t fault people for wanting to tune out the rhetoric and take their vote out of play out of distaste for all the ideological chest-thumping from both right and left. But it doesn’t have to be this way.

Rather than set up a typical all-candidates meeting full of speechifying and, well, politicking, Tenth to the Fraser, N.E.X.T. New West (a networking & social club for young professionals in the city) and New Westminster Environmental Partners have teamed up to organize a special non-partisan Green Drinks – Election Edition meet & greet with candidates. The event will be held on Wednesday, April 20 from 6-9pm at La Rustica, 228 6th Street. All residents are welcome to join us.

There will be no formal debate or confrontational politics at the event, just a chance to bend the candidates’ ears on the questions that matter to you, plus an opportunity to meet & mingle with some friendly local folks.

Green Drinks is a monthly networking event for sustainability minded citizens to socialize and discuss issues from green buildings, sustainable energy, organic gardening, and everything in between.  Originally started in the UK in 1989 the New Westminster chapter of Green Drinks has been occurring monthly for over three years.

So far four of the eight candidates have confirmed they will attend the April 20 ‘Election Edition’ of Green Drinks, including Conservative candidate Paul Forseth, NDP candidates Fin Donnelly and Peter Julian and Green candidate Carrie McLaren. We hope to hear soon from the remaining candidates whether they are able to join in the fun. Update: Conservative Diana Dilworth and Green Rebecca Helps have also confirmed they will attend.

We want to see voters of all political stripes come to the event – even if you who don’t yet know how (or if) you’ll vote.

Hope to see you there!

 

Visions of a new downtown

Downtown New West. Photo: Dennis Sylvester Hurd
Downtown New West. Photo: Dennis Sylvester Hurd

Revitalization. It’s almost a dirty word in New West. Time and time again, ‘revitalization’ is promised: on 12th St., in Sapperton, and most frequently and fervently, downtown. For years we have lived in the shadow of construction cranes towering over Columbia St., and this promised revitalization has not yet come. Yet I think this long-overdue hope will soon be realized, as we approach a critical mass of major development projects and an accompanying demographic shift that really will have the power to transform New Westminster’s downtown.

By the end of 2011, New Westminster’s tarnished Golden Mile will shine again with the addition of a new 10-screen cinema, civic centre, waterfront park and a much-improved public market at the Quay. The construction that hampered pedestrian access around New Westminster SkyTrain and the ground-level crossing to the Quay will be complete and the related condo towers will fill with young professionals just hitting their stride in their careers and preparing to start families.

Within the community too there’s a new energy providing the gestalt for change. NEXT New West, a monthly networking mixer for the city’s young professionals, began meeting at the end of 2009 and will continue to grow in size and ambition to knit these young families into the social fabric of our city. The Downtown Business Improvement Association is in the midst of rebranding, hoping to recast downtown New West as a magnet for local commerce – not just bridal shops.

Momentum is building, but there is still a ways to go.

The River Market sits gutted, ready for new life . On the office walls, sketches and plans promise a far edgier, hipper vision of New West. Risk is embedded in this promise of change. So much depends on the final tenant mix, currently TBD following a delicate dance of negotiations that will ultimately depend on the strength of belief in Downtown New West’s revitalization.

The River Market’s fancydancing to get residents to sign a pledge of support for an unnamed local organic grocer is one attempt to boost New West’s belief in itself. New West BIA’s rebranding and community outreach efforts are another.

At the Quayside Community Board AGM some weeks ago, New Westminster Downtown BIA Executive Director Virginia Bremner came to speak to Quayside residents about the hoped-for changes coming to Downtown. After outlining what the BIA is and what it is trying to accomplish, she turned the floor over to the audience with the question, “What would it take for you to shop downtown New Westminster more often?”

The answers to the question were predictable: more services for residents, fewer bridal boutiques (or inversely, more non-bridal shops & services), cleaner streets, safer streets, etc. More interesting to me was the challenge implicit in the question. New West residents wish for a more vibrant downtown. Yet, when we take our business to Burnaby, Coquitlam or Vancouver, we make it harder for the BIA, the River Market, etc. to bring in and retain the kind of retailers we long to see.

In the end, we have to back up our belief with action. When we put our energy into attending community events and supporting local retailers with our dollars, we are pledging real support for the change we want to see.