City’s blank-cheque COVID recovery plan in serious need of reality check

The City of Vancouver has a strategy for the community’s COVID-19 recovery. Good news: Ottawa and Victoria can take care of us, we will keep on keeping on.

The city’s Report of the Council COVID Recovery Committee is one part magical thinking, one part mirage, one part miasma and one part myth. It might even be one part mushrooms.

Its conceit is that imminently we will discover money trees in the forest, money plants in our fields, money currents in the streams and money clouds in the skies. The report from the committee of the whole is a blank cheque for pursuing ecstasy instead of a reality-check for emerging from agony.

A generous reading of the 18 pages is that council is content with the direction it has mapped for the city and wishes only to add cherries atop the whipped cream once COVID-19 is so yesterday.

But there are troublesome deficiencies in any vision that believes the pandemic is an opportunity to accelerate solutions to chronic conditions. The economic hole created in the past few months won’t suddenly refill and spill over. We will need to deal with idling before achieving the idyllic. Sooner, not later, the firehose of funds will become a trickle, then become a vacuum. This trifling matter didn’t appear to be a committee concern.

Before a city can walk, business must be on its feet. Before a city administration can attack our ailments, its citizens must be working and consuming in safe, fair, prosperous conditions to generate the funds to pay for it. Somehow these trifling matters, too, eluded consideration.

Instead, the result of six meetings in June and July produced a framework that will satisfy a small clutch of industries – stationery suppliers, ink-cartridge manufacturers, perhaps Canada Post – as the city writes letters to plead with senior levels of government to finance the vision. The committee made 41 “top-priority recommendations,” 23 of them “near-consensus,” which is the first glimpse of how many kitchen sinks were thrown in. But there need not be worry, because Justin Trudeau and John Horgan are supposedly at the ready.

Of the top five of the top 41, all are jobs further on up the road, to broaden the national housing funds, enact a national “housing first” strategy, revive a co-op housing program, acquire low-cost funds for non-market housing and push for a split-class commercial tax assessment.

Of the next 18, it is true that 14 are within city purview, but they include “valuing diversity,” a “safe supply of drugs,” “climate adaptation and mitigation,” “mutual respect” of Indigenous people and recognizing how “women are an important component of recovery.” These are important values-driven matters, but they are at a remove from direct economic activity and impact, which is where the committee’s work most missed.

The committee heard in presentations that “supporting small business is key to economic recovery in Vancouver,” but that didn’t translate into anything tangible amid the pet-project retention. Thus, no inkling of incentives to draw business investment or location, no loosening of the permit regime, no tax relief, no review of municipal expenditures and no plan to eliminate the cost-laden Development Cost Levies and Community Amenity Contributions that inflate building expense. It is as if business were not, indeed, key to the recovery.

Irony aficionados would have noticed the report surfaced as the city’s latest homelessness count was released. The two documents could not be more worlds apart – one of a stark, chronic nightmare, another of a stark, chronic delusion.

There was also a Statistics Canada report that found more than 15,000 businesses in the broader Metro Vancouver closed in March and April, double last year’s total in those months and just the start of the pandemic’s rage.

Fear not. The report is into the hands of city staff. We’ll have its analysis by the end of January. Breathe easy. •

Kirk LaPointe is the publisher and editor-in-chief of Business in Vancouver and the vice-president, editorial, of Glacier Media.