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.
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.
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.