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Wednesday, May 22, 2013

It's déjà vu all over again

I have been just a little preoccupied lately with this and that, deadlines to meet, presentations to prepare, and a number of meetings and conferences. I’ve tried to attend as many meeting of council and its committees as possible but often find myself having to leave early and missing the items I especially wanted to witness.

Not that it seems to have made much difference. Meetings at city hall have taken on the pace of the once popular soap operas. Viewers could miss one episode or many, sometimes even several years, and found they could just pick up where they left off.

So it was with the Investment and Economic Prosperity Committee on Tuesday. The date had changed but the concerns, indeed the very speeches of the committee members, seemed to be interchangeable with those of the preceding month. I checked my notes just to make sure I wasn’t in some kind of time warp.

No indeed. It was a different meeting. Paul VanMeerbergen had been present on April 29th. He was not there on May 21st. but Councillors Paul Hubert and Harold Usher were there, although they are not on the committee, just as they had been on the previous occasion.

In April there had been updates on the economic prosperity projects in the hopper, especially the big five that had been identified as the priority ones. The mayor had been frustrated by the fact that nothing seemed to be happening on the implementation front. The most recent unemployment numbers had not been good and were getting worse. The council term was rapidly approaching its final year. Where oh where were the 10,000 jobs so happily promised two and a half years ago? He was tired of excuses; he wanted better collaboration and timelines. Koreans and Japanese and native people were knocking on the door. There was a sense of urgency in the community. The time for action was now. If they couldn’t bake a whole pie right now, they should bake half a pie.

If he thought that idea was half-baked, city treasurer Martin Hayward didn’t say so. He did point out, however, that large projects don’t happen overnight; they take time and planning. Land has to be assembled, finances have to be put into place, there are legal considerations and planning issues.

Then the director of corporate investments and partnerships, Harvey Filger, weighed in. “The most frustrated person is me,” he shot back. He had been hired at the beginning of last summer with no experience of the city and he hadn’t been given any resources. Still, he had managed to get out a 150 page report by September. He had been doing his job. “End of story,” he concluded.

And now, nearing the end of May, Filger was back with an update on the five  projects and the community responses to them. That had been part of the strategy, to seek public input throughout the process.

That’s not what Fontana wanted to hear. “It’s not just about these five projects,” he complained. “It’s a lot more. It’s about 25 projects, about every planning application. Who’s in charge of advancing these projects? What are the timelines? Silos have to be broken down. Who is making sure that they are moving forward as quickly as possible?” He hoped that was all part of the communication piece. They had to get moving, let people know they weren’t shutting off the tap with the five projects, that there were more coming in. Take away the red tape.

Filger agreed. Of course it wasn’t just about five projects. They were part of a bigger picture. They had to include retention and marketing strategies. They needed to look at the totality of the plan.

Still, there was this problem that nothing seem to be happening. Things weren’t moving forward. Who would move the plan forward?

Welcome Stephen Orser to the rescue. He had an idea that required some broad-minded thinking, he suggested. What they needed was an economic development czar. Someone with broad powers who could just say this is what you do if you want to create so many jobs. Someone who would just do it.
And he knew just the right person for the job: Harvey Filger.

But hold on a minute, the chair Joe Swan warned. They already had such a person in place, the city manager Art Zuidema. Zuidema agreed that he was prepared to take this on if there were some resources available. He couldn’t do it without resources. He needed a consultant at least.

Actually, it was someone else altogether, argued Harold Usher. It was Peter White of the London Economic Development  Council. He should be the Jobs Czar.

Fontana didn’t like any of it.  They didn’t need a czar, they already had too many of them. He gestured toward the staff sitting in two long rows in front of him. What they needed were some field marshals. Or Braveheart.

Unfortunately what they have is themselves. The Gang that Couldn’t Shoot Straight.

One thing that has become clear is that the legal woes of the mayor have taken their toll; he can no longer count on the unquestioning loyalty of his followers. There were a lot of 3-2 votes. Who knows how that will play out when all committee members are present. And staff too, seem to be a little more feisty in responding to the demands to hurry, hurry, hurry.

And just what is it that the committee wants staff to do? There certainly is no clear plan in evidence, no consensus on strategy and no consistent priorities.

That became evident when committee members learned that the plan to create an “enterprise centre”, which it had previously endorsed, was no longer in the works. The idea had to bring together the Small Business Centre, TechAlliance, the London Economic  Development Corporation, Tourism London, and the convention Centre under one roof thereby encouraging cooperation  and breaking down silos. But, the players weren’t interested and there wasn’t any money. With no money and no interest, it was no go.

Fontana couldn’t believe it. Who had put that project on snooze and not told him? If the money had disappeared… strike that—if the money had been reallocated, how had that happened? He wanted it back. He supported it 110%.

The money had been “reallocated” as part of the 2013 budget reworking to try to achieve a zero tax increase, he was reminded.  They were too polite to remind him that he had been the budget chief.

The committee voted to bring back the project. Where the money would come from wasn’t identified.

In any case, none of the ideas was firm. They just wanted to get a report back from staff about the possibility of doing these things, like retaining a Jobs Czar or introducing a business triage unit that would help businesses negotiate its way through the bureaucracy and red tape to address their issues and barriers to growth.

Staff will report on these and other matters next month. Be prepared for another episode of déjà vu.


Rockinon said...

Of course, déjà vu is not always bad. There were some very good things done in the past, say in urban planning. Yet, programs like ReThink London often keep very busy reinventing the planning wheel. I've attended many of the ReThink meetings and I'm beginning to long for some carefully considered déjà vu. Maybe residents of the Byron area of London will have some luck with this déjà vu stuff and see you run for council in the next election. I'm crossing my fingers -- again.

Solid Gold Casino said...

Probably best if all major decisions involving London are deferred until we can drop-kick the Fontana 8 off city council.

Anonymous said...

I don't know about other people, but I am now convinced the IEPC was created to rubber-stamp projects that were in reality the Mayor's pet plans. As frustrating as this must all be for staff and other members of the Council on the IEPC, I have to be glad to see it has become a lame duck. Somewhere in here is hope for better leadership in the near future.

Anonymous said...

This is so pathetic. We have a mayor who froze taxes and now wonders why the city does not have any money to create jobs. We have a city council where the gang of 8 sit and have no bright ideas as to how to run this city but they can give themselves raises. We have the poor taxpayer who gets a tax freeze, but gets so called tax levi's slapped on them for garbage pickup if you have more than 4 bags, parking goes up, hydro goes up, etc., and now they get fined if they drop a cigarette but on the sidewalk. Another way just to get money. By the way Queens and Richmond has lots of cigarette butts on the sidewalk. Also, the poor unemployed person in London can look forward to more years of no job because the city does not have the money to create jobs. All the while the mayor and city council are blaming everyone else except themselves for this big mess. Think we need a new mayor and city council. The average joe blow could run this city better than the mayor.

Chris M said...

It is quite simple to understand where our jobs are...they are in the hands of the very LARGE number of "employment agencies" throughout the city. Employers are exercising the option of hiring on people as temps because they can get the same "full time" worker, without all that nasty business of actually paying them a higher wage and definitely not having to pay for all those medical benefits. My husband did that for about a year or two after he got laid off, he felt good about working, but bad because no one seemed to want to make him a permanent offer. Why buy the cow when you can have the milk for free?

Philosopher King said...

Unfortunately there are no magic answers. Every city wants the same thing London wants. There is a large supply of land and workers available and little demand for manufacturing capacity right now. I would assume most of the unemployment is in the "blue collar" fields. The service business is low pay for the most part and driven by consumer demand (disposable income). The professions still hum along, quietly, and without a lot of fan fare (poor ribbon cutting opportunities. Construction jobs are there (look around the university, Fanshawe and the hospitals), but since those are government funded, that means higher taxes and "no one" wants that. With limited abilities around the council table (which of them would you hire to be the economy czar?) and the rope around the mayor's neck, it is not surprising they are stuck in neutral.