Metro’s strengths will help it weather headwinds on the horizon

As I look to the year ahead, there is much to be optimistic about; but there has also never been more uncertainty about what the future will hold.

We all hoped to be in a better place by now. Despite the success of our vaccination programs in British Columbia, a resurgence of COVID-19 cases has caused a heightened level of anxiety for businesses and individuals alike, on the heels of a series of severe weather events that profoundly impacted communities around the province.

The stakes have never been higher for our region, the challenges facing Metro Vancouver are as complex as they are varied. We are feeling the effects of climate change more acutely than ever before, the tax burden on businesses and individuals continues to increase and the effects of the poisoned drug crisis are all too apparent on the streets of Vancouver. These issues loom large and tackling them will require the undivided attention of our civic leaders.

The ‘great resignation’ has been a major disruptor for businesses of all sizes and across all sectors, and the effects will continue to be felt in the new year. Data from Statistics Canada shows B.C. has the highest job vacancy rate in the country, fuelled by occupational shifts, child-care pressures and mental health challenges brought on by the pandemic. Attracting talent is costing employers more, at a time when many are already stretched financially.

These problems affect businesses across all sectors, but small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) are most vulnerable. Government support programs remain out of reach for many, and research by the Canadian Federation of Independent Business indicates that SMEs are carrying an average of $130,000 in pandemic-related debt. While these businesses should be applauded for their resiliency, we must also provide them with certainty that they will be supported as they navigate the year ahead.

On top of debt and labour shortages, the Canadian inflation rate hit a 30-year high in November. As supply chain constraints and other inflationary pressures reduce the purchasing power of consumers, businesses already grappling with reduced revenues will be forced to choose between absorbing additional costs and raising prices.

Government spending ballooned during the COVID-19 pandemic, and the question of who will foot the bill remains. We need real and sustained economic growth over the long term to increase our fiscal capacity and offset the massive amount of debt incurred over the past 22 months. The burden cannot fall on the shoulders of hard-hit businesses.

Despite our challenges, Metro Vancouver continues to be one of the most attractive places to live and work. More Canadians moved to B.C. than anywhere else in the country last year, and we must ensure that we continue to develop the transit and housing infrastructure required to accommodate the influx of newcomers. Modelling from Metro Vancouver Regional District indicates our population will grow by a million people between now and 2050, and this must be a key consideration in planning for the future.

As our regional population grows, the risk of bottlenecks in our transportation network and supply chains becoming more acute will increase as well. The long-overdue George Massey Tunnel replacement is projected to open by 2030, but there are concerns that increased volumes of goods and services moving along Highway 99 will negate the additional capacity. All of this is unfolding against the backdrop of a massive effort to restore full service along crucial corridors that connect us to the rest of the country which have been impacted by flooding.

Significant obstacles lay ahead, but there is also much to look forward to. Although our members in hospitality and tourism have warned that a full recovery is unlikely to occur before 2025, the return of cruise ships in the coming year will be a boon to downtown Vancouver and Victoria. Tech companies continue to see the value in establishing headquarters in our region, and the life sciences sector, buoyed by the success of local companies in developing solutions to the problems brought on by COVID-19, is thriving.

Indigenous communities, long excluded from meaningful engagement, are now at the forefront of major projects, including housing development and a potential bid for the 2030 Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games. We must continue to advance reconciliation at every opportunity, but conversations that were once on the periphery are now front and centre in the public square and the boardroom.

The lessons we learned over the course of the pandemic will serve us well in the coming year. The path forward will require a concerted and co-operative effort from the business community and governments of all stripes to ensure that we emerge from 2022 stronger, more resilient and poised to capitalize on the unique advantages our region enjoys in a world of ever-increasing complexity and disruption. •

Bridgitte Anderson is president and CEO of the Greater Vancouver Board of Trade.