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Why I’m Betting on Halifax

The Halifax State of the Economy conference occured earlier this week. An initiative of the Greater Halifax Partnership, which leads the development of the region’s economic plan, the conference discussed the progress to date, and initiatives to grow the region, and its economy. Following along on Twitter, I was impressed by most of what I heard coming out of the conference, and what I read of the plan.

The HRM, particularly its downtown core, face many challenges regarding future growth, yet there are many positive signs – even beyond the massive shipbuilding contract it landed last year. As the regional hub for Nova Scotia, and in many ways Atlantic Canada as a whole, growth opportunities abound.

Downtown Halifax
Flickr/wdrwilson

Now, I have a fondness for Halifax, which to some degree skews my opinion. I enjoyed a great year living and working there in 2005-06, and it remains one of my favourite cities. Yet, I believe many of the factors I see working in its favour do hold up to scrutiny.

A Realistic Business Plan
I’m often a skeptic of economic plans, yet I found myself impressed with this one. In particular, the things that stood out for me are:

– The focus on clusters, which I see as one of the more reliable ways of growing a region’s economy.
– The importance of people and place, and how this can’t be separated from the economy.
– That it’s measurable. The Halifax Index provides a fair, region-specific way of tracking progress.

Owly Images

Best of all, I find it realistic. It assesses the region’s strengths and weaknesses, and has a cautious, incremental plan for growth. There’s no betting on the next big thing, or a magic solution to turn things around. Cautious, steady growth feels realistic and attainable to me.

Universities and an Educated Population
The HRM is home to a relatively large concentration of universities, which only grows when you consider schools such as Mt. Allison, Acadia, and St.FX are all within a few hours drive. The region has a highly educated population too, providing the basis for a growing creative economy. Right now, the region struggles to hold on to the large number of international students who attend its schools (as the report notes). There could also be greater integration between the schools and the economy, encouraging R&D and spin-offs.

Yet, the sheer number of students who come through the region – domestic and international – is a huge plus, and is an opportunity that can always be built on. It exposes a large number of people to the region – many of whom wouldn’t have come if not for school. While it won’t retain all of them (or maybe even most of them), it gets the city on their radar – as a place to live, or to do business regardless of where they settle. Of course, more can be done to retain students – and the other factors identified will help with that.

Appealing Urban Form
The local consensus is that the downtown needs work. Yet, a new report outlines many advantages of Halifax’s downtown. In particular, it cites the downtown’s density (at 42 residents/ha) as an asset. It’s also very compact and walkable, which is becoming more and more of a popular feature in any city – especially for younger residents, and a lovable (in my opinion) architectural style. Add to this great public places like the Public Gardens and the Commons, and the HRM boasts one of the most appealing city cores anywhere in the country.

I stayed overnight in Halifax earlier this month, my first time back in 6 years. I was impressed with the changes, in particular what seemed like an increase in popular international retailers and vendors (they now have Starbucks, and I did not expect to see a Lululemon on Spring Garden Road). Many of the successful independent shops remained as well (seeing Bookmark still there warmed my heart), and new ones had emerged. Regardless of one’s feelings on chain stores and restaurants/cafes, it’s a sign of confidence in the city’s downtown to see them moving in there, and not just in the Shopping Centre or one of the power centres in the suburbs.

Thriving Cultural Scene
Halifax is famous for its pub scene (who isn’t familiar with the Lower Deck?), and has boasted a strong independent music scene for the past 20 years (producing arguably the best indie-rock band of the ’90s – Sloan, and the ’00s – the Joel Plaskett Emergency, along with one of the best festivals – the Halifax Pop Explosion). These features and amenities will continue to make it a popular destination for tourists (and to host conferences and conventions), and for people and businesses to locate from a quality of life aspect.

Strong Culture and Sense of Identity
One of the things that has always stood out for me amongst Atlantic Canadians is the immense pride they have and express in where they come from. This is as true when you encounter ex-pats across the country as it is in their home region. It’s infectious, in the best possible way.

Out west, we’ve seen reverse migration to Saskatchewan as that province’s economy has picked up in the past decade. I foresee a similar trend to the Atlantic if the right economic circumstances presented themselves. Additionally, Halifax enjoys a positive reputation amongst most Canadians (at least, those who have experienced it). As quality of life becomes a greater consideration (especially for Gen Y), this factor will again play to its advantage.

Betting on Halifax
At the moment, Canada’s economic growth is being fueled by a resource boom. That will in time ebb (if not go bust), and the country will have to look to other industries for recovery and growth. The fundamentals are there for Halifax to keep growing its regional economy, and be one of the most successful centres in the country. With a little more success in retaining grads (and bringing back ex-pats), holding on to more students from other regions, and scaling up some of the economic diversification already going on, it will happen sooner than most of us think.

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Reimagining the Bookstore

I read a story yesterday proposing a new model for bookstores. That bookstores have struggled in recent years is a secret to no one, with high-profile closures like the Borders chain making headlines, to say nothing of the many communities that have lost long-time independent shops.

The author of this post was writing about one of those stores in his community. His new model was summarized as follows:

Once past the bestsellers, you find an Espresso Book Machine, churning out volumes that customers have special-ordered. (In his post at Digital Digest, Sanfilippo indicates that three million titles are available for printing on demand, but in an e-mail note he tells me it’s actually seven million.)

That Book Place also has shelves and shelves carrying a mixture of new and used books, with price stickers giving the customer a variety of options. You can have a brand-new copy shipped to you the next day, or buy it used, or rent it, or get it as an e-book. If you take out a membership in the store, you can borrow a book for free, or get a copy without the Digital Rights Management (DRM) scheme that limits it to use on a specific kind of device.

In effect, the bookstore becomes a combination lending library and product showroom. “The books in the store shouldn’t be the focus of the revenue,” writes Sanfilippo. “Instead, the revenue might come from membership fees, book rentals, and referral fees for drop shipped new copies or e-book sales.”

To this, Mary Churchill, who tweeted the link, added the idea of “tables with e-readers embedded and of course, drinks and magazines”

These all struck me as good ideas, and things that . As this article points out, independent bookstores have been resilient, holding most of their business. Yet, it remains to be seen how long this can last in the face of growing e-commerce and e-reading.

Powell's Bookstore
Powell’s Bookstore in Portland, the largest independent book seller.

I enjoy visiting bookstores, and think they have a lot to offer to customers and to the community. While some will always be able to survive as general book stores, I see a handful of strategies that can help independent stores prosper going forward.

Become More of a Third Place
Rather than simply offering items for sale, bookstores can become gathering places, encouraging customers to spend more time there for more different purposes. Mary’s suggestion of drinks for sale is a natural step in this direction; while many booksellers have a coffee bar already, it’s adjoining rather than embedded in the store. A greater integration would encourage customers to spend more time in the store, and draw potential new ones in as well. The provision of communal space that can be used for meetings and events is another possibly avenue.

Embrace Technology
Similarly, the suggestion of e-readers would make a lot of sense. It would be a way for customers to browse before purchasing titles, and access newspaper/magazine subscriptions (perhaps under the membership model suggested below). Having bookstores facilitate downloads of e-books/articles is an opportunity as well.

Specialize
Physical stores will never compete with the selection of online sellers, but they can develop niches in the marketplace, and stock well in those areas. Which leads to the next point…

Add Value Through Knowledge and Expertise
The biggest competitive advantage a store can offer is knowledge and expertise. This comes from employing and cultivating knowledgeable staff who are passionate about books and reading. One of my favorite activities at a bookstore is simply browsing and discovering new titles. Having staff who are familiar with them, and can recommend new work based on my interests, is an invaluable service, far beyond Amazon’s “Customers Who Bought This Item Also Bought” function.

Give Your Customers a Stake in Your Success
I like the idea of selling memberships (a co-operative model, or membership-based non-profit/non-dividend structure may work well). Author talks, access to staff expertise, and access to books/magazines would help sell. For example, if my bookstore had e-readers (or physical copies, I suppose) where I could access a number of magazines on-site, as noted above that would be worthwhile (assuming a cost savings compared to subscribing on my own). Independent stores are unlikely to compete on price, so other benefits to members and customers are essential to succeeding.

These are just a few ideas. As much as the bookstore business facing challenges, I also see a lot of opportunity to evolve and succeed going forward.

One Day in England

Tomorrow is the last day of the English Premier League season. As a Liverpool fan, I have to say thank goodness for that. But as a fan of the sport, I’ll miss what I consider the world’s best league. There are a number of important matchups, and battles for first place and Champions’ League spots, in addition to one spot in the relegation zone. All 20 teams play at the same time tomorrow – and the drama will surely be high. You can see the matchups here and current table here.

With that in mind, here is what’s at stake:

United-1
Flickr/Bob Singleton

The Title Race
With their victory in the Manchester Derby nearly two weeks ago, City took control of their destiny in the title race, drawing level with United on points, but holding the tiebreaker on a (probably) insurmountable goal difference. Both sides won last weekend, so the title remains up for grabs.

United will need a result at Sunderland; City hosts relegation-threatened QPR. Speaking of…

The Fight for Survival
Wolverhampton and Blackburn have been officially relegated to the Championship (second division), and Bolton is the strong favourite to join them. To avoid that fate, they need to win at Stoke, and have QPR lose at City. While the latter is a strong possibility, the Wanderers have no margin for error. If they draw, QPR would have to lose by at least 9 goals to wipe out their goal differential tiebreaker.

On that note, wins by Bolton and United, along with a QPR win (or draw) – would keep the Rangers up, and deny City the title – making for an all-time memorable final day. Were it not for my general reluctance to see good things happen to Sir Alex Ferguson, I would definitely be rooting for this outcome.

Top Four Turmoil
The top two (in some order) are set, as is sixth place (sorry, Chelsea!). Arsenal is in third, one point ahead of Tottenham, who in turn is one point ahead of Newcastle. The top four qualify for the Champions’ League (with fifth going to the decidedly less glamorous and lucrative Europa League). That is, unless sixth place Chelsea wins this year’s Champions’ League final against Bayern Munich next weekend, in which case they’d qualify at the expense of the fourth place team in spite of their record. Clear as mud? Okay then.

All three teams face difficult challenges:

– Arsenal visits West Brom, who upset them at Emirates last year, and will be playing for the last time under manager Roy Hodgson, who leaves to take the England job after this match. WBA is a tough matchup in any circumstance, so a result for the Gunners is far from guaranteed. A draw would guarantee them at least 4th place, though.
– Tottenham is at home against a tough Fulham team, who has beaten them in recent years, and could still finish as high as 7th depending on tomorrow’s outcomes.
– Newcastle visits Everton, who with a win will be assured of finishing 7th (and ahead of rival Liverpool…sigh).

Two teams fighting for the title, two for survival, and three for the one or two remaining Champions’ League spots. Tomorrow should be an exciting day to cap off this year.

Management Lessons from Canada’s 41st Election

The 41st Canadian general election took place one year ago today, heralding significant changes to the political landscape. Looking back, there are lessons in the results of that night that we can all apply to our organization.

Jack Layton in Edmonton I
Flickr/Dave Cournoyer

Challenge the Conventional Wisdom
For decades, everyone’s believed that the road to a majority government went through Quebec. Prior to his return to federal politics, Stephen Harper (and long-time advisor Tom Flanagan) advocated three sisters theory to conservative success in Canada – western populists, Ontario tories, and soft nationalists in Quebec. After failing to make a breakthrough in Quebec in successive elections, the Conservatives refocused their efforts elsewhere, and finally earned their majority with very little Quebec representation – a previously unheard of concept in Canadian politics.

Identify Your Core Audience/Market, and Focus on them Relentlessly
Building on the previous point, the Conservatives identified the voters needed to produce a minimum winning coalition, and zeroed in on earning their support. In particular, they focused on multicultural communities as a growth market, and their efforts have paid off in recent years.

Change Can Happen Suddenly, but Comes After A Lot of Groundwork
The NDP’s historic result came in large part due to a breakthrough in Quebec, winning 59 of 75 seats – up from the 1 they won in 2008. That breakthrough came in a 2007 by-election, after years of hard work. Since his election as leader in 2003, Jack Layton worked to build the party in Quebec – reasoning that the socially progressive base of voters in Quebec were a natural audience for the party. Results were slow coming, but in 2011, the tipping point was reached, and the party earned a major breakthrough that they’re looking to solidify under Layton’s successor Thomas Mulcair – the MP first elected in that 2007 by-election.

Don’t Take Anything for Granted
In their years as Canada’s natural governing party, Liberals seemed to grow in to the expectation that in the rare instances they’d lose – voters would come back to them in due course. Their grassroots had atrophied, and they lost a clear message to take to the voters. When supplanted by a more charismatic centre-left leader, and party with an appealing message, they lost big – having lost much of the core support they could once fall back on. Voters abandoned them for Jack Layton and the NDP, leaving the once-proud party with a long, difficult road back to success.

Without Diversification, You’re Vulnerable
The Bloc Quebecois had won a plurality (or majority) of the seats in Quebec in every election since 1993. From their roots as a sovereigntist party, they had settled in nicely to the role of looking out solely for Quebec’s interests in parliament – effectively acting as an interest group. When Quebec voters got tired of this message, the Bloc had nothing to fall back on. They were nearly wiped out – surviving with only 4 seats – down from 47 last election – as voters embraced ‘le bon Jack’.

Unions and the New Economy

Today is International Workers’ Day, more commonly known as May Day, an international celebration of workers’ rights. I don’t belong to a union (but am fortunate to work for an employer that treats and compensates me fairly). In fact, I’ve never belonged to one (edit: in the workplace – forgot to note the Students’ Union). In this, I’m hardly alone. Less than 30% of jobs in Canada are unionized. In the United States, it’s far lower – 11% in 2010 .

Unions have shifted over time, seeing the predominant ones become much more public sector and white collar than its blue collar origins. In Canada and the United States, its traditional base has been eroded by outsourcing and mechanization of many blue collar jobs over the past number of decades. While unions like the SEIU and AFL-CIO still exert political muscle in the United States, the union vote and power is in most places not what it once was.

I believe unions play a valuable role in protecting and empowering citizens. Yet, my opinion is far from the consensus. Polling in the United States shows public opinion to be nearly evenly split in terms of approval. In Canada, 2008 polling saw strong support for unions, but also concern around their level of political activity and influence. Additionally, high-profile strikes by public sector unions have often been met with hostility from the public.


The striking staff at the Congress Hotel in Chicago, site of the longest on-going strike.

To grow their support, I see three key challenges in ensuring they continue to play a key role.

Adapting to the Changing Nature of the Workforce
The traditional union structure makes sense for workers who spent many years (if not their entire career) with one employer (or in one industry – like a teachers/nurses union). However, the overall workforce is becoming much more fluid, with people moving jobs (and/or industries) frequently, and often switching between full-time employment and self-employment.

Sara HorowitzFreelancers Union is a good example of a model that can work for industries with highly-mobile workers. Unions representing performing artists are another.

Engaging the Most Vulnerable Employees in the Workforce
I’ve long believed the greatest strength in unions lies in providing job protection and a voice for the most vulnerable workers in our economy – those who may struggle to represent themselves. In the 19th century, it was miners and steelworkers and other labourers whose lives, in some cases, were literally at risk every day. As we move towards a creative economy, many service-oriented industries consist of workers with little job protection. They may not face the same dangers every day, but many do put up with unsafe or unhealthy working conditions due to the lack of available options, and the ease with which they could be replaced. Today, the working poor can often be found in Wal-Marts, fast food restaurants, and other service industries that see high turnover. I would argue that it is these workers who would benefit the most from a unionized environment (or one with greater protection in some form).

(This CAW-CEP discussion paper provides some excellent insight into the future of the union movement as well).

Winning the Political Battle
Unions are a popular lightning rod (especially for conservative politicians), and will continue to see their role and their rights under attack. The 2011 protests in Wisconsin showed that unions can still have a very powerful impact; James Fallows wrote about how they could work with young activists (such as the Occupy movement) to affect change. Doing this effectively to benefit all workers would be both a progressive move, and help unions win the public relations battle.

Happy May Day. Here’s Jon Langford’s song “Plenty Tough, Union Made” from the Wisconsin protests: