April 16, 2006

Halifax discovers co-operation is vital to economic growth

HALIFAX -- I recently visited Winnipeg and met with various business, civic and government leaders to discuss Halifax's story of economic transformation. One of the important lessons I have learned -- the subject of many discussions on my visit -- is that a community can only be stronger through co-operation.

Let's start with a story about a Canadian community that, just 10 years ago, was in a serious state of decline. The economic outlook for this community was bleak, struggling to keep itself from falling into recession. This community had completely lost its sense of purpose. Municipalities and factions within this community had come to view each other with suspicion and distrust. Their primary economic development efforts involved bidding wars to lure companies from one part of the province to another. That community was Halifax.

It was in the midst of this decline that a group of key business and government leaders got together to talk about how they could get out of the mess they were in. They decided that the first order of business was to get rid of the in-fighting and divisions between the business community and government.

Led by the Halifax Chamber of Commerce and supported by the mayor's office and municipal government, the Greater Halifax Partnership, the first public-private partnership committed to building economic prosperity in our region, was formed.

The Partnership changed everything -- absolutely everything -- about the way we think, talk and act on economic development. Today, things are still not perfect in Halifax. We have a long way to go. But compared to 10 years ago, we are very happy with how far we have come. Despite losing 8,000 public sector jobs in the past 10 years, despite the downturn in offshore development, despite a host of other challenges, we have at lot to talk about with pride. Among other things, we: 

  • Increased our population by over 29,000, or eight per cent. * Retained our youth. We are one of two mid-sized Canadian cities that have been able to keep young people in any meaningful way, registering a net growth of 5,300 young people aged 18 to 24 in the last census period. 
  • Created over 44,000 new jobs in our community, entirely through the private sector. 
  • Grown retail sales by over $1.9 billion. 
  • Consistently maintained our unemployment rate at or below the national average.
  • Today, Halifax has a lower unemployment rate than Montreal, Toronto and Ottawa.

Nowadays, things are different. There is a common theme, and that theme is partnership. Key groups essential to economic prosperity -- business, universities, all three levels of government, the Department of National Defence, our airport and port -- now co-ordinate regularly through the Partnership. They invest their money and commit their expertise. We believe there is a strong correlation between this partnership approach and our economic performance.

The Partnership is enabling us to do things that we did not even dream about 10 years ago. There are three things that partnerships can do for you that other economic development models can't.

First, they change attitudes. Partnerships dramatically increase both public and private sector co-operation and accountability for the growth of the economy.

Despite research indicating economic growth is enhanced when the public and private sectors work co-operatively together, in most communities, they don't. It's just too tempting to use each other as whipping posts. But attitude change is about much more than co-operation -- it is also about stakeholders taking greater accountability and responsibility for their role in the economy. Partnership helps to make this happen. As soon as you stop the in-fighting and finger-pointing, community confidence starts to rise. People stop blaming the other guy and they start to focus on success stories.

In our case, the success story we wanted to celebrate was the fact that Halifax has, per capita, the most highly educated workforce in North America. We have six degree-granting institutions. It is a key advantage for us. We used it to focus on something called Smart Growth. Smart Growth really changed the way Halifax feels about itself and the way we are perceived by others -- it gave us the credible, consistent brand awareness we were looking for.

When the campaign started, unemployment was the primary focus among citizens and business in our community. Last time we checked, it ranked about eighth and we are consistently highly ranked in business-confidence measures. And that's all part of Halifax's compelling business case -- a business case that led to our most recent success, when Research in Motion announced it would locate up to 1,200 jobs in Greater Halifax. It was truly a team approach; Nova Scotia Business Inc., our provincial counterpart, our premier, the business community -- all united to support growth.

This would not have happened if attitudes and perceptions hadn't changed from where they were 10 years ago. A confident community seeks out opportunities. A confident community looks more attractive to outside investors. A confident community invests in itself.

Second, partnerships change perceptions. Partnerships improve the way we view ourselves, the way we are viewed by others and the way we do business.

When you work for an organization whose very nature is about partnerships, it begins to be a mantra. That's how we operate -- simply put, we bring people together to get things done.

Not just in the local marketplace, but also regionally, nationally and internationally. These partnerships have all been formed with the same objective in mind -- how can we increase economic growth right here at home?

With a partnership approach (almost) anything is possible. Internationally, we have formalized partnerships with Washington, Houston and with the World Energy Cities Partnership. Regionally, we have an economic corridor project with Moncton, N.B., a city we used to view as a rival.

Third, and most importantly, partnerships change the way we stimulate economic growth. We know that 80 per cent of job growth in a community comes from existing businesses. Research tells us that 90 per cent of new investment comes from existing companies.

A public-private partnership allows a community to get real focus on the internal operations of its economy because everyone who has a hand in the economy is sitting around the same table.

Now, I would be remiss if I did not admit to you that there are significant challenges in making a public-private partnership work. It takes time, effort and commitment.

We believe that our partnership between the public and private sectors has significantly improved the way we grow our economy. There are two possible futures, one where we fight over the crumbs, focus on our differences and compete, or one where we grow the pie, solve common problems and collaborate. For our community, the choice has been clear.

Stephen Dempsey is president and CEO of the Greater Halifax Partnership, the public-private economic growth organization for Halifax.