A tantalizing tale of four New Brunswick cities

Whether it’s Moncton the “smart”, or Saint John the “energetic”, or Fredericton the “wise”, or Miramichi the “hopeful”, New Brunswick’s metropolitan areas are proving that they have the right stuff to compete in a global, knowledge-loving world. The proof is in the economic pudding: rising employment, an expanding creative class and international attention. Take note, Canada.

Greater Moncton: Where minds thrive

Moncton Mayor George LeBlanc laughs when he recalls former New Brunswick Premier Frank McKenna’s famous comment about New Brunswick’s “urban hub”: It’s the Timex City because it takes a licking and keeps on ticking.

That was more than a decade ago. Today, Greater Moncton (which comprises the municipal communities of Moncton, Riverview and Dieppe) is home to 125,000 people, the lowest unemployment rate in the province (less than six per cent), the highest job participation rate in the Atlantic region (more than 67 per cent), the most robust commercial and real estate market east of Montreal, and the highest per capita income in the Atlantic provinces outside of The Halifax Regional Municipality.

It’s not a bad record for a city that, only 25 years ago, faced a fretful future following the closure of its historic and signature industries: regional retail and railway manufacturing enterprises. But, as LeBlanc says, “It really is no surprise that our motto is ‘resurgo’, which is Latin for ‘rise again’. Overcoming challenges is one of the things we do best. The fact is that we are a small city that exceeds expectations.”

On the other hand, he says, “We also know we can’t rest on our laurels. We have to keep going, keep pushing. We must never forget what it means to be a true city of choice. And this is quality of life, sustained prosperity and low cost of living.”

To secure these civic bounties, Greater Moncton’s three municipalities have focussed on information and communications technology as key to the future. At the same time, private companies have collaborated in its growth as a telecom-centric economy, adding more 20,000 management, finance, health services, technology, and education jobs since the early 1990s.

All of which has produced a greenfield of knowledge, innovation and technical wizardry. The private-sector list of achievements and ventures is as long as it is varied.

Rogers, for example, is one of Canada’s largest multi-faceted communications companies, specializing in cable television and wireless services. It operates a 700-person, national back office and contact centre in Moncton’s downtown core, employing state-of-the-art technology and round-the-clock customer care.

Atlantic Lottery Corporation, which manages the Atlantic region’s gaming industry, is a world leader in technical advancement. It was the first company of its kind in the country to introduce barcode readers/wands to validate tickets. It was also the first in the nation to develop a PC-based lottery terminal and an IP-based terminal network.

Indeed, from wired water meters to WiFi Internet service on city buses, from digital entrepreneurship to bold initiatives in e-health, e-learning and e-commerce – the community is rapidly becoming one of the world’s savviest cities. That is, if we are to believe the Intelligent Community Forum (ICF), an international think tank, based in the United States, which studies economic and social development.

The organization recently ranked Greater Moncton among the top seven of 21 “smartest” cities in the world. This was after more than 400 communities spent months vying for the “Intelligent Community of the Year” designation.

As for taking a licking, this city is clearly punching above its weight class.

Saint John: Where energy drives

Not long ago, former Saint John Mayor Norm McFarlane spoke about his beloved city of 122,400 souls the way every civic booster speaks about his home town: glowingly. “I don’t think there is any doubt that Saint John is the province’s economic dynamo,” he said in 2007. “We’ve become New Brunswick’s ‘go-to’ community in a lot of ways. And that’s related to the fact that there is a lot going on here.”

Flash forward two years, and the picture forms just a little differently. Last July, Irving Oil and British Petroleum announced that they would not proceed with building a second refinery in the city, dashing hopes of a $7-billion boon to the economy and a jobs bonanza not seen since Irving Shipbuilding won the federal contract to build the navy’s frigates in the early 1990s.

Still, the city’s current mayor, Ivan Court, insists on a stoically optimistic interpretation of events. “We are fortunate that over the past few years, we have been successful in positioning ourselves as an energy hub and in diversifying our economy,” he said last summer. “Early in our mandate, Council set a number of priorities and we remain committed to them. The city will aggressively pursue economic opportunity.”

All of which is to infer that Saint John will not easily relinquish its self-perceived role as New Brunswick’s leading industrial, municipal powerhouse – not now, not ever. And, in fact, why should it?

The greater municipal area is home to a fully employed labour force of more than 70,000 people, an unemployment rate of just 6.4 per cent, a median family income of nearly $60,000, average house prices hovering in the $160,000 range, and a large cohort of highly skilled, well-educated young people, courtesy of the University of New Brunswick at Saint John and the New Brunswick Community College.

It also boasts the second-largest – and one of the busiest – seaports in Atlantic Canada, which Saint John port authorities describe this way: “We have some of the most modern and best-equipped terminal facilities anywhere. Our transportation infrastructure, together with our roll-on/roll-off capacity and other specialized cargo handling and storage facilities, makes the port highly competitive in the North American marketplace.”

Meanwhile, information and communications technology promises to supplement Saint John’s traditional economic sectors with lucrative, high-tech service companies and software developers. Propesj, for example, is a private sector, non-profit organization dedicated to the growth of entrepreneurship, innovation and the expansion of the ICT sector in the city. Through its efforts, dozens of firms, creating hundreds of jobs, have been launched over the past three years.

Still, in the end, Saint John is all about energy. Despite Irving Oil’s disappointing refinery announcement, the construction of its new Liquified Natural Gas terminal at the Canaport facility is nearing completion – promising direct labour benefits of between $26 million and $30 million in the near future. Beyond this, say Enterprise Saint John officials, “Wind and tidal energy are forms of renewable nergy that are being explored and experimented with. Already, a good portion of New England’s energy originates from New Brunswick.”

In other words, there is – as former Mayor MacFarland might declare – a lot going on in this port city.

Fredericton: Where knowledge revives

Of New Brunswick’s three major, southern cities, Fredericton, the seat of the provincial government, has always considered itself. . .well, not exactly superior, but certainly the best equipped to meet the knowledge-economy challenges of the information age.

If Saint John is a tough-minded working man and Moncton is a hard-scrabble entrepreneur, then Fredericton is a university-bound research scientist. Or, perhaps, it’s a public servant with one too many advanced degrees to his name.

In any case, this municipality of 85,700 people (124,170 if you account for the Greater Fredericton Region’s bedroom communities) can certainly support its boast as the “Knowledge-based Capital” of New Brunswick. It’s home to 70 per cent of the province’s R&D firms and institutions, including the National Research Council’s Institute for Information Technology Canada and the nation’s largest per capita engineering cluster.

It is little wonder the city was named one of Canada’s top 10 places to live in 2009 (for the third straight year) by MoneySense magazine or that Fredericton has been recognized twice as one of the Top Seven Intelligent Communities of the World by the Intelligent Community Forum of New York.

“We are thrilled to add another accolade to our growing list of achievements,” gushed Mayor Brad Woodside in May after the MoneySense announcement. “We are committed to providing our residents with world-class infrastructure and further enhancing our quality of life.”

Unlike other communities in New Brunswick, Fredericton obtains its economic momentum from the ever-present hand of Government, six accredited universities and the proximity of CFB Gagetown (one of the biggest military training bases in the Commonwealth, which pumps upwards of $200-million a year into the municipal economy).

These factors have helped secure the city as a Mecca for the young, the skilled and the upwardly mobile. The labour force tends to be more youthful (the median age is 38.4 years, compared with the provincial average of 41.5 years) and affluent (the average family income is $82,137, compared with the New Brunswick mean of $68,465). And the employer base tends to skew towards secure, white collar opportunities.

Indeed, apart from CFB Gagetown, the provincial government, NB Power, the university sector, the local health authority and school district, the largest job generators are in fields such as professional, scientific and technical services; arts, entertainment and recreation; educational services; and administration and support, waste management and remediation services.

All of which has bred other compelling advantages: more businesses per capita (approximately one for every 14 people) than almost any other location in the Atlantic provinces; retail sales of nearly $1.4-billion in 2009, or roughly 23 per cent greater than the national average; a record-breaking $157.1-million in new construction in 2008; and the lowest property taxes among all New Brunswick cities.

It would be boastful, even rude, to claim Fredericton is, indeed, marvellously equipped to meet the knowledge-economy challenges of the information age. It would also be right.

Miramichi: Where hope survives

The relief in Miramichi Mayor Gerry Cormier’s voice was palpable last February. Umoe Solar NV, a Norwegian company with deep pockets and great expectations, had just announced plans to build a $600-million solar cell factory on the site of a shuttered paper mill. It also expected to hire 350 people from the local labour force. “This is good news in these tough economic times,” Cormier said.

“No kidding” was the general reaction in a city that has been hit hard over the past couple of years – not just by the global economic recession, but by the erosion of its traditional, resource-oriented industrial base. Like many communities in central-north New Brunswick, far from the comparatively robust south, this municipality of 37,000 – where the unemployment rate varies from a low of 11 per cent to a high of 25 per cent, depending on the season – relied on the forestry, mineral extraction and fishing as steady revenue and job generators.

But when the Canadian dollar began to rise, and commodity prices began to fall, major employers closed operations and laid off workers, leaving places like Miramichi with a bad case of naval gazing. Indeed, when Cormier took office in 2008, he was quick to acknowledge, “People are looking for some new ideas. They want something a little different, something new.”

Umoe, which bought the former UPM-Kymmene mill shut since 2007, certainly seems to fit the bill. In September, the firm signalled its long-term interest in New Brunswick by applying for $2.9-million in funding from the Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency, in part to keep two post-doctoral, seven PhD and five master’s of science researchers busy over the life of the project. It also asked Business New Brunswick for financial aid.

Over the past year, government funding totalling $33-million has provided incentives for private investments amounting to $70-million. According to Enterprise Miramichi (one of 15 Community Economic Development Agencies in New Brunswick), these funds, “assisted to create, expand, upgrade and diversify many businesses.”

The strategy now is to encourage further development of the value-added manufacturing sector (where Umoe firmly belongs), knowledge and tourism industries, aerospace, health care and bio-energy all while attempting to bolster the forestry and fishery. Currently, according to Statistics Canada, the municipality’s top three industrial employers are health care and social assistance, retail trade, and manufacturing.

To be sure, it’s a very tall order. But the one resource Miramichi never seems to run out of is hope.

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