This post originally appeared in Issue Zero of our print magazine, April 2016.
The phrase “economic development” is often a signal of some boring, dry stuff to come, stuff best left to bean counters and statisticians. There is a relationship between economic development and the way a community evolves and transforms, however. The feeling in the city, the way neighbourhoods work, and the people who are here are all impacted by economic development and vice versa. That human factor is what makes it so important to look beyond the dollars and cents part of the equation.
“People naturally look towards what ‘could be’,” says Kendra Johnston, Executive Director for the Downtown New Westminster Business Improvement Association. “There is a shift happening.”
The sense that things are changing – and rapidly, at that – is a sentiment shared by a number of business people in the community. “New West is becoming the destination of choice for many,” says Cori Lynn Germiquet, the CEO of the New Westminster Chamber of Commerce.
She’s right, if the number of businesses opening up in New West is any indication. From 1999 to 2014, Metro Vancouver stats show a steady increase in the number of business licenses issued. The number of licenses isn’t even a complete picture of the numbers of businesses, as there are some who operate without a license or whose business addresses are actually in another municipality.
“Part of the challenge of being one community in a region of many cities is that our residents do not always work and play in our City,” Germiquet notes.
The City of New Westminster’s Economic Development department has a nice microsite – www.investnewwest.ca – to tout the benefits of doing business here. It cites New Westminster’s centrality, supportiveness, affordability, and progressiveness as the key features to make it attractive, and a report in June of 2015 lists New Westminster as one of the top three places to start a small business in the Metro Vancouver region. Blair Fryer, Communications and Economic Development Manager, acknowledges the City has a role.
“Our role is about providing the ingredients for successful businesses, and helping them access whatever supports we can offer,” he says. “We also work to connect them with appropriate groups in town that can help them succeed, like merchant associations, business improvement associations, and the Chamber, but also networking groups, residents’ associations, and even Tourism New West.”
Two of those ingredients the City is banking on are the Economic Health Care Cluster (now called the IDEA Centre since we published April’s magazine) focused in Sapperton, and the Intelligent City Initiative.
The Economic Health Care Cluster is being developed with the support of a task force, and in conjunction with the massive, provincially funded, multi-phased expansion of Royal Columbian Hospital. A draft report available on the City’s website says the intended outcome of the strategy is “to transform the precinct surrounding the hospital into an integrated collection of health and technology businesses, organizations and entrepreneurs.” It also notes that the initiative will be the premier employment strategy from 2015-2025 in the City’s Economic Plan.
The City of New Westminster also adopted an “Intelligent City Initiative” in 2015 that will see an investment of a $5.5 million open-access infrastructure of broadband fibre, capable of carrying data at incredibly high speeds (now called BridgeNet since we published the April issue).
This investment paves the way for a knowledge-based workforce in the community. Building, owning, and offering the infrastructure that technology-dependent businesses need in an open-access way also means that telecommunications companies have the option to jump on board and lease the fibre, and then in order to attract customers, offer more competitive pricing.
The Chamber also sees this initiative very positively. Says Germiquet: “With innovation in technology, emerging markets, and cultural and demographical shifts, I believe in order to compete globally, we have to work together as an entire region. Small local businesses provide job opportunities for local residents.”
The Intelligent Community Forum, a global think-tank with ideas about how cities can be improved with advanced broadband infrastructures – and what New Westminster’s own initiative is partly based on – also suggests there’s a “last mile” cities need to work toward in attracting and retaining knowledge based workers to live and contribute in their communities.
“In Intelligent Communities,” their website states, “local government works closely with schools and employers to give students first-hand experience of career opportunities and develop specialized courses to prepare students for careers in the community’s leading and emerging industries.”
With Douglas College, the Justice Institute, and even CG Masters Academy right here in the community as well as the relatively easy commute to other regional post secondary institutions, New Westminster is banking on being well positioned to see locals graduate from high school, learn and develop technology-dependent skills, and then be able to stay in the community to find work, either via telecommute or at businesses attracted to New West and their competitively priced broadband.
New Westminster is a city known for its unique and distinct neighbourhoods from a housing perspective. From sweeping, grand heritage properties in Queens Park to cheerful different-yet-the-same houses lined up along manicured streets in Port Royal, it’s clear we have neighbourhoods of homes owned by proud residents. But there are also clear economic districts in New West as well.
Gary Pooni, born and raised in Queensborough and President of Brook Pooni Associates (a company that manages the communications and consultation for development projects across the region), believes that business who do really well in New West are adept at drawing people from outside the city; that they think in trade areas, rather than borders.
“New Westminster is a bunch of distinct neighbourhoods. For example, the Brewery District is based on the SkyTrain and health care, whereas Queensborough is auto-oriented with the fashion-focused mall. One of the ways the City and businesses can plan for continued success is to plan based on the strengths of each neighbourhood.”
It’s clear that some neighbourhoods are capitalizing on this very sentiment. On any given weekend day, numerous groups, made up of mostly young adult women convene on Columbia Street to find the perfect dress. Often scorned by residents, the bridal district is well known in the region and beyond as a one-stop shop for wedding party attire.
“It’s natural to only want businesses that cater to us as locals, “ says Johnston. “Destination shopping like the bridal stores along Columbia Street have kept this area alive when few other businesses were surviving. I talk to other BIAs in the province who would love to be known for something. The bridal district has also served us well with spin-off businesses like gift shops and cafes. There is a shift happening however, and with rising local population, we’re seeing an increase in restaurants, retail and services that benefit local community as opposed to destination shopping.”
Gord Hobbis, owner of Cap’s Bicycle Shop in Sapperton believes shoppers and shopkeepers alike share the onus of ensuring the success of local retailers. “In order for a business to be successful in any neighbourhood they need to get involved in the community they are in but acknowledge who they are trying to attract – locals or people outside the region.”
Hobbis says he’s focused a lot of energy on making sure he has an accurate inventory on an easy-to-navigate website. “I know people come from all over to buy at my store because what they saw on the website was accurate. I hope customer service is what keeps them coming back.” Hobbis points out other businesses in his shop’s neighbourhood who have been successful for the same reasons, and suggests some of the ones who didn’t survive just “didn’t see the value in doing more than just opening and closing each day.”
In Uptown, the members of the Uptown Business Association see their strength in their diversity rather than in a segment-focused approach. Within the efficient, walkable neighbourhood with buses zooming by in all directions, there’s a bit of everything for everyone. Gardening, books, groceries, travel, banking, jewelry, clothing, bakeries, restaurants, shops, and health services such pharmacies, dentists and doctors are all within a few minutes walk of one another. Attracting the farmers market’s winter offering to relocate to Belmont Street, backing the live music festival Uptown Live, as well as allocating a healthy budget to street beautification projects also shows they are thinking about the type of people they are serving. Clearly, it isn’t just stores in spaces
It is clear economic development is just as much about people as it is about money. Back at City Hall, Fryer suggests that the best way to ensure success is to talk about it, no matter the audience.
“For all the same reasons we tell people New West is a great place to live – great people, dense and walkable, affordable, progressive… we can tell people it’s a great place to do business, too.”
Pooni agrees that the community is on the right path. “New West is a mosaic, he says.
“It has the business culture, the entrepreneurial spirit, the infrastructure, transportation… the bones are all there. The community is largely united and invests in human capital, and there’s strong leadership from the top down – the city is in great hands.”