Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Is Greater Sudbury Ready to Host Aerospace Industry?

Last week, mayoral candidate Dan Melanson called for the City to create the economic circumstances to work towards establishing an aerospace industry in Greater Sudbury. Melanson believes that the timing is right for the City to pursue some of North America’s largest aerospace companies, and smaller companies who do business with those companies, to come to town and set up shop. Tax incentives would be the carrot Melanson employs to make our City more attractive to industry. Well-paying, high-tech and industrial jobs would be the spin-off for Greater Sudbury.

It’s an exciting idea, but how realistic is it? Melanson acknowledged that there will be challenges, given that other centres, such as Prince Edward Island, are also trying to attract aerospace companies, and they’ve got a head start on places like Greater Sudbury, which hasn’t gone about pursuing aerospace industries in any meaningful way, despite the Sudbury Airport Development Corporation’s ownership of our airport, and it’s desire to expand a range of complimentary facilities and operations on site.

Greater Sudbury at a Crossroads

Melanson thinks, however, that Northern Ontario is ripe for investment from the aerospace sector, and that existing mining and supply operations, some of which are very high tech in nature, will have a cross-over effect on aerospace start-ups. I think that he’s right about this. I believe that we are entering a time of significant opportunity for Northern Ontario, and that if Greater Sudbury is able to seize this moment, it will lead to long term economic prosperity.

Unfortunately, our City finds itself at a bit of a cross roads – we look ahead toward the future, but we find ourselves in the midst of a bit of a crisis regarding which way to turn in order to get there. Dan Melanson’s candidacy for Mayor is a case in point. It’s clear that Melanson views the creation of a high-tech aerospace sector as a healthy means of creating wealth and prosperity. Yet, other than suggesting the use of tax incentives to kick start that industrial enterprise, the direction that Melanson wants to take our City will ultimately prove to be detrimental to establishing an aerospace industry here.

Aerospace as Part of Larger Industrial Strategy for the City

Some are writing off Melanson’s scheme as air-brained, pointing to the fact that Melanson owns an aviation company and seems to be more concerned about greasing the wheels and wallets of his buddies and, potentially, his own. That’s nonsense, of course. It’s because Melanson is experienced in the business of aviation and has contacts with companies that he has come out with this idea – who, really, knows better what the lay of the land is for aerospace start-ups in Greater Sudbury than someone who is immersed in the day to day operations of the business? If anything, Melanson’s personal business success shows that he knows what he’s talking about – at least when it comes to this idea.

The challenges, however, are numerous. First and foremost, the City has lacked anything resembling a comprehensive industrial strategy – and that’s likely one of the reasons that our airport seems to have been left largely on its own to fend for itself, while other Northern centres like the City of North Bay have gone out of their way to focus development activities in and around their airport. North Bay recently developed an industrial park in proximity to its airport, in order to better attract aerospace companies. Although located in wetland, the industrial park has started to grow, thanks in large part due to North Bay’s pro-business policies related to the park (as an aside, the choice to locate their business park in a significant wetland may ultimately prove detrimental to the success of the business park, and not just for environmental/flood-related reasons. As corporations are becoming increasingly aware of their social responsibilities to communities, it may start becoming difficult for industries to justify locating in areas of higher environmental sensitivity – and especially in those areas which have been transformed from their natural functions into locations for new greenfield development).

The Sudbury Airport Development Corporation (SADC) bills itself is an independent corporation which doesn’t rely on municipal tax revenue for its operation. It was created in 2000, when Transport Canada transferred ownership and governance to local authorities across the country. SADC’s Board of Directors has two spots reserved for municipal Councillors, so although the corporation acts independent of the City, it remains integrated to a degree in the fabric of the City’s governance structure.

And that’s why it seems to me that the City has been missing out on an opportunity to grow both the airport and related jobs. SADC’s mission statement indicates that the airport should be Northern Ontario’s preferred gateway, and that the airport should drive economic development in the City of Greater Sudbury. And SADC seems to be doing its part. After taking a hit in the annual number of passengers in 2009 and 2010, during the economic downturn, annual passenger levels in 2012 and 2013 have been the highest seen at the airport. Inexpensive flights might be part of the reason, but likely this uptick has a lot more to do with the amount of money entering Northern Ontario through the mining, supply and exploration sector.

Greater Sudbury as the Focus for the Sustainable Development of Ontario’s North

Greater Sudbury is one of the world’s mining, supply and exploration centres after all. And the mineral wealth of Northern Ontario could very well continue to drive prosperity in our community throughout the 21st Century. Our City has the infrastructure in place to be the base camp for operations in the Ring of Fire, and given that region’s remoteness from larger urban centres, it’s clear that an active aviation hub would bring benefit to our City.

Mining exploration and supply is hardly a new business to Northern Ontario, even if the stakes have now never been higher. With this in mind, it is very clear that Greater Sudbury isn’t positioning itself to take advantage of our assets. Appropriate planning, starting with an industrial strategy, will be critical if the City is to move forward to seize the opportunities presented by the Ring of Fire and other mineral enterprises which will come on stream with the sustainable development of Ontario’s northern hinterlands. We are truly in the midst of an “all hands on deck” moment in Greater Sudbury, but not all of the hands appear to be working at complimentary purposes. That’s got to change.

Attracting Business Investment - Greater Sudbury’s Strength and Weaknesses

The location of the City’s airport approximately 25 kilometres from the downtown will prove a barrier to creating a vibrant aerospace industry. Too often, the effects of past decisions and bad planning have rippled into our future, leaving us with costly remediation bills. There’s probably nothing that can be done regarding the airport’s location – we’re stuck with it. While some might argue that the remote location will allow for a greater range of potentially noisy industry, the fact is that the high-tech employees of the future (and let’s face it, of today) aren’t going to be too thrilled to travel to and from this remote location to work.

Our City has a lot to offer employers who are interested in creating high-tech jobs. Our City offers a livable experience which would be the envy of any City in the Greater Toronto Area. Recreational opportunities abound. Our roads are relatively free of congestion. Culturally, we continue to punch above our weight class. And our house prices are a bargain compared to those in the GTA. With an increasing focus on redevelopment and infill in order to better keep taxes and service charges down, Greater Sudbury is primed to accommodate opportunities for population growth should it be needed to service remote northern development opportunities.

I don’t write any of this lightly – I’m not exactly known for taking pro-growth stances, as I believe that true sustainable development doesn’t require growth. But, the fact of the matter is that the sustainable development of Ontario’s remote north will require an infusion of both labour and capital – but it’s not going to benefit the entirety of Northern Ontario’s geography. In the bid for new capital and labour investments, not every location will prove attractive. Those that can make the case are much more likely to attract new investment – whether it’s wanted or not (and we should keep in mind that investment isn’t always wanted, depending on the type of facilities being proposed). In that context, it only makes sense for a community to plan for likely outcomes. For Greater Sudbury, a likely outcome is that we are going to see some of that investment happening here. A better outcome would be, given the relative strength and flexibility of our numerous assets, would be to see a large portion of those resources made available to our City.

Livability at the Heart of Municipal Investment Strategy

If we’re going to do that, however, we’ve got to get our act together. Although our City already has many reasons to attract employers creating well-paying jobs, there are an increasing number of obstacles which are becoming apparent in terms of this City’s livability. What was once attractive in the past – larger homes on large lots, located in suburban settings, each with two and three car garages – isn’t nearly as attractive today, especially to younger workers – both those with and without families.

Yet our City’s focus regarding “livability” continues to prioritize large roads to service cars over just about everything else. If we don’t start seriously shifting the focus away from a car culture of convenience and onto creating truly livable communities in our City, Greater Sudbury may find that what was once a local advantage for highly paid employees has lost a lot of its lustre. And big business is taking note of these aspects like never before. Happy employees are more productive employees. Time loss to long commutes stuck behind the wheel of a car is time that might otherwise be spent with families, or used for leisure activities. Working closer to home is becoming increasingly important for a growing number of people. Getting to and from work through the use of active transportation, such as walking and cycling, is also becoming more important.

But you don’t have to take my word for it. Just Google “Richard Florida Creative Class” and read about the sorts of communities that Florida describes as being poised to seize tomorrow’s prosperity. And then ask yourself how well Greater Sudbury fits the bill today – and then try to think about to 10 or 15 years ago, and ask yourself again if we’ve come very far in that amount of time. I think we’ve made some progress, but the pace of that progress has been pretty darn slow. If we are going to make the 21st Century as prosperous as it might be for Greater Sudbury, we can’t continue to afford missing out on creating the City we really do need to attract investment that’s going to go somewhere. It doesn’t have to come here just because we consider ourselves to be the Capital of Ontario’s North.

Innotech Park

In some respects, the City is laying the groundwork for future investment in the high-tech sector. The City’s award-winning Downtown Master Plan, for example, includes a call for the creation of a high-tech business park (Innotech Park – intended to be a hub for innovation and technology, hence the name) just east of Lorne Street and south of Elm, on lands currently occupied by under-used parking lots west of the rail line. The Master Plan points out that this is one of the largest vacant land assemblages in any downtown in Ontario. It’s already serviced, and it sits in the heart of the City. If the City were serious about moving forward with mining and aviation clusters, it would be doing all that it can to make Innotech Park a reality for high tech jobs.

But, for the most part, the City’s Downtown Master Plan is collecting dust on a shelf. The Innotech Park lands are currently under consideration for the development of a casino, precisely because of the massive amount of cheap surface parking they could provide. So rather than being the hub of a long-term job-creating high-tech corporate sector as envisioned by the Master Plan, our City may sacrifice this significant opportunity at the altar of expediency, creating a hand-full of middling jobs, and missing out on any opportunity to make our core more livable. By all means, Greater Sudbury, put your casino downtown – but this isn’t the location for it. Another proposal suggests building the casino on top of the Rainbow Centre, using underutilized space better. We should be doing what we can to encourage that sort of intensification, rather than exhausting our vacant land supply in our core for a facility with questionable economic outcomes for our City.

In this “all hands on deck” moment, the City should be doing what it can to make Innotech Park a reality, and to preserve industrial and commercial lands in sensible locations throughout the City. Again, a real industrial strategy for our City might have something to say about all of this – but that’s not what we’ve got.

Strategies for Future Prosperity: Investment vs. Divestment

Getting back to Dan Melanson’s idea – I think that Melanson is largely on the right track, but I’m not sure that he’s thinking big enough – or strategically for that matter. Much else of Melanson’s campaign is based on the idea of the City divesting from the very things which Florida and so many other futurists are calling on municipalities to invest in. Melanson’s small-minded focus on core services – which he essentially defines as roads and pipes – will disadvantage Greater Sudbury’s pursuit of an aerospace industry to an extreme degree.

Creating the underlying circumstance for business investment in a community involves far more than simply giving tax breaks as Melanson would have voters believe. Yes, tax incentives probably should play a part in growing business and industry, especially those which create good, local jobs (like the aerospace industry certainly does). But tax breaks alone can’t be relied on to achieve the outcomes that Melanson – and others, including me – aspire to for our community. This “all hands on deck” moment certainly can’t be fuelled by cutting cultural supports for our community, or making our City friendlier to cars. Sure, go ahead and find efficiencies with municipal spending – but let’s not lose track of the significant role that spending plays in making our City vibrant and healthy.

An aerospace and aviation hub may very well be a critical part of the City’s industrial strategy – I think if we are going to seize our moment with the Ring of Fire, aviation and aerospace must be a part of the strategy. Yes, there will be challenges to overcome, but that’s not a reason to do what we can to make our City a better place for future generations. Appropriate planning, starting with a sound business and industrial strategy which has at its heart long-term sustainability and livability, would be a good place to start – now!

(opinions expressed in this blog are my own and should not be interpreted as being consistent with the views and/or policies of the Green Party of Canada)

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