The Tale of Two Cities

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Well the 2016 municipal election is just around the corner.  I’ve read in the paper that a few councilors feel that they have done a pretty good job over the past four years. Humm… I’m sure there are players on the Toronto Maple Leafs that feel they’ve done a good job but the NHL standings tell a different story. I guess it will be up to the voters to decide who will play on our  next municipal team. I know there are a few players that I wouldn’t pick

Flint Michigan keeps popping up in the news lately, did you know they have the highest water rates of any city in the US?

“A survey of the 500 largest water systems in the country, conducted last year, found that on average, Flint residents paid about $864 a year for water service, nearly double the national average and about three-and-a-half times as much as Detroiters pay. The figure is based on an annual household consumption of 60,000 gallons”.

Whow! $864 per year for water what a deal, have you looked at you water bill lately?. Can anyone tell me why we are paying $1224 for untreated water and sewage? Am I allowed to sink a well in my back yard and go off Saint John water?

Back to Flint Michigan

A few years ago I watched the 1989 documentary by Michael Moore, Roger & Me. Flint is a mid-sized, blue-collar city and ran like a well tuned car until the mid- ’80s.  Faced with stiff competition GM began to close some of the older plants and move auto assembly offshore. Flint’s unemployment and poverty rates soared. Those who could afford it left Flint for greener pastures – California, Florida, New York, etc. Flint saw residential, retail and commercial vacancies go up. Many properties were not properly maintained; some fell into disrepair and were abandoned. However, for the folks living in Grosse Pointe (Flint’s more affluent suburb) everything was fine.  ( a bit like Rothesay)  So like many cities Flint had it’s  “have and have-not communities.

Meanwhile, in urban Flint, the fertile minds at City Hall believed that major projects and tourism would be their salvation, $13 million of taxpayers’ dollars to build the Hyatt Hotel Convention Center complex. This effort managed to attract some busloads of bingo players and the Hyatt eventually went bankrupt. Then the city decided to build the Water Street Pavilion with its major parking ramp in yet another effort to attract tourists. Impressed? Ah, no cigar here either. Not easily deterred, next up was Auto World, with a price tag of $100 million and the expectation of one million visitors per year, it closed after just six months. The reason given was lack of attendance. Money Magazine rated Flint the worst place to live in the states. Crime and poverty were on the increase so the city decided to build a five-storey state- of-the-art jail – or was it a police headquarters? Really have you been to Flint? Trying to re position Flint as a tourist destination made about as much sense as putting a Casino in Pennfield N.B.

Flint and Saint John have wrestled with a similar problem for different reasons, population erosion and with it their respective eroding tax base. Flint’s population erosion was the result of GM plant closings. Their grand-scale projects failed to meet what was needed to repopulate the city. Flint failed to create a “quality city in which to live.” The silver bullet, look-good projects did nothing to attract people back to the city core beyond the normal business hours. In short, the projects developed did not consider or meet the needs of the citizens of Flint. There should be a lesson here for Saint John

Now for Saint John, tell me has the Police Headquarters, Parking garage or Bus Garage that sucked up somewhere in the region of $60 to $70 million dollars convinced anyone that Saint John is the place to be?

Tell me, councilors in a city that currently have a 20% commercial and retail vacancy as well as a glut of residential vacancies how will adding the The Crossing with 500,000 sq. of commercial, retail and residential capacity and tentatively approved by Common Council move Saint John in the right direction? Add in the 300,000 sq feet of commercial space for the new Irving Oil Headquarters and now we have the potential of 800,000 sq feet added to 2016-04-05_0945an excess of retail and commercial capacity.

“Saint John continues to have the highest overall vacancy rate and lowest overall net rental rate in Atlantic Canada”. (Turner Drake and Partners Dec 2015)

I don’t want to rain on anyone Renaissance City parade but we have the future of a city at stake. Will this be yet another example of a poorly thought out decision by Common Council that will hang around our necks like a dead albatross for decades to come? By all means let’s  have development but let’s have well thought out responsible development. Will the development decisions council makes today give birth to the commercial and retail slums of tomorrow?  Think about it.

Saint John has the advantage of a relatively diverse and stable industrial base. Yet we have experienced a steadily declining or static population. Why?  We have an opportunity to learn from the mistakes made by other cities, do it once and to do it right. Do we have the foresight to look at the successes and failures of other cities and benefit from them?

 

 

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