Collaboration is crucial to making Metro a unified economic region

Ah, working together.

Sounds like a good idea. Easier said than done.

Take, for instance, the 23 separate political jurisdictions of Metro Vancouver – 21 municipalities, the Tsawwassen First Nation and the Electoral District A.

We live amid such privilege and prosperity, yet we are relatively uncollaborative and without a shared economic vision for the 2.5 million residents who account for half of the province’s output.

Cities will drive three-quarters of GDP growth this quarter-century, but Metro Vancouver has lagged as a local archipelago largely of self-interests.

Rich as we are, we can’t conquer profound and seemingly intractable poverty.

Developed as we are, we can’t overcome inordinate transit and infrastructure deficits.

Attractive as we are, we can’t identify and recruit anchor companies for our industry.

Most of the traditionally industrial-dense cities ringed by serene suburbs have given way to serviced economic clusters amid research institutions across boundaries. Where many such regions in Canada have chosen amalgamation to strengthen political clout or ease the jurisdictional tensions, for the time being that remains off the table with Metro Vancouver. Our political leadership has chosen more granular governance, and the risk comes principally if there is selfish behaviour in the mix in attracting investment and jobs.

Which, in our case, there is.

A recent Metro Vancouver “green paper,” the loosest kind of political document, aims to identify a framework “on positioning the Metro Vancouver region as a competitive and vibrant metropolitan economy.” Which is another way of saying it isn’t. The report leaves the heavy lifting to others and later. But in emphasizing the importance of a metropolitan approach, it is hardly reassuring about reaching the best outcome.

When reports of this nature express criticism, they do so in bland terms to mute the true challenges. But it’s obvious even in this subdued report that we have a long way to travel.

How difficult? Take this understated observation: “The region is facing some significant short- and long-term challenges, including most notably deteriorating affordability, competition for land, investment in transportation infrastructure, and climate change.” Facetiously, what else is there left to worry about?

While the region isn’t in crisis, yet, individual economic efforts “cannot continue to be conceived and pursued in the absence of a broader strategy that recognizes the metropolitan area as the economic unit, and that builds on the strengths of the region as a whole.”

That concept has not had a kind history. The Greater Vancouver Economic Partnership, the Greater Vancouver Economic Council and the Metro Vancouver Commerce had their moments, but the report makes it clear they did not “broaden the tent” to cross-sector collaboration.

It’s not as if it hasn’t happened, even without amalgamation, elsewhere in North America. The report finds no fewer than 14 examples that essentially rub our noses into our go-it-alone ethos. These partnerships work to research trends, recruit businesses and generate jobs. They lobby as a region to land the big fish; we are not even in the boat.

The report makes clear that it’s time to get with the program: commit, build credibility gradually, stay focused, be adaptable and stay engaged.

Which brings us back to the deceptive simplicity of collaboration.

Each municipality is judged at election time for its economic track record in attracting industry, enhancing the tax base, and adding jobs. Voters don’t furnish points for teamwork or for willingly setting aside rivalry to concede development to neighbouring municipalities in the pursuit of the bigger picture. That’s partly the attraction of amalgamation or even regional governments – the alternative, as others found and Metro Vancouver must know, is necessary political culture change with risks to the incumbents.

Port Coquitlam Mayor Greg Moore has been handed the task of moving this rock up the hill with meetings in 2016. Our best wishes to him. 

Kirk LaPointe is Business in Vancouver’s vice-president of audience and business development.