Too many swings and misses on Vancouver’s economic scorecard

On the issue of finding a city to live in, let’s quote a song from Talking Heads: “Good points, some bad points.”

On the specifics of Greater Vancouver, let’s quote The Beatles: “Number 9. Number 9. Number 9.”

I don’t get to use the word often, but it comes to mind here: Meh.

We should be flattered by some praise but troubled by the tepid assessment of where we live in the release last week of the Greater Vancouver Economic Scorecard, commissioned by the Greater Vancouver Board of Trade and conducted by the Conference Board of Canada.

Why worry? The good points we don’t much control, the bad points we own big time.

The detailed report convinces me our leaders believe our own press too much. They are Vangroovy brand-smitten, narcissists obsessed with our beauty who have not rolled up the sleeves, with a harvesting strategy that dodges tough decisions.

The report is a commendable, evidence-based argument that the framework of an ideal locale is there: a comparably good tax index, a vibrant port and airport, a great influx of foreign-born residents to diversify and clean air to enjoy the outdoors.

But then the devil emerges in the details: comparably crummy per capita income and real GDP, low productivity, education levels that aren’t especially world-class in general and are harrowing for our First Nations in particular, a transit system ages behind the reality of demand and a struggle as a small market to do the bigger things.

It isn’t that the report provides proof of a hollowing out of Greater Vancouver’s talent base – opinions are divided on that – but it is clear the flight from the city of Vancouver to the neighbouring communities masks a malaise in developing the capacity for sustainable economic growth.

The next generation of leadership certainly can’t emerge if younger people keep fleeing.

In a global context of comparing us with our counterparts here and abroad, we should be ahead of quite a few of the eight metropolitan centres ahead of us – hello, Calgary and Seattle, at least – and not just the easy-to-beat places like Houston, Manchester, Halifax and Miami.

We can have all the clean air we want, but it’s a little lacking if we don’t have all the good jobs we need. The sky isn’t falling; it’s just not as sunny as the tourism pictures.

Take this scorecard, fast-forward a decade without subduing the principal challenges, and the picture we’d paint would be far more unsightly: housing out of reach of the prime-income cohort, a port that has hit the growth ceiling because of a shortage of land, an undereducated populace, an underdeveloped business sector because of high tax rates on capital investment, lots of towers and lots of people waiting for the bus to head to relatively low-paying jobs.

It was instructive that the report saved its last words – and most extensive, almost pulpit-worthy prescription – for the topic of regional co-operation, the act of trying to make the sum of our parts bigger than the whole.

We just don’t.

We have taken on a culture of parochial fiefdoms, complicated our conduct of business and mainly fought at our weight class instead of above it. Others collaborate, even amalgamate, and get the championship belt. We have population without representation nationally at times, and we build ourselves – out of small-minded rivalry and an absence of higher purpose – an unnecessary hill to climb in attracting investment.

When the Conference Board notices something like this and takes time to focus on the priority with a lecture on how to pursue mannerly governance, it is not good news for us on the national stage. You want to be known for prosperity, not petulance. A local mayor or 22 should be rereading that passage and pledging to the fraternity/sorority. 

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