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Greater Niagara Chamber of Commerce

Economic summit start of bigger things

In geography, a summit is a peak. We want the Niagara Economic Summit to be the start of our climb.

We intended to identify the key issues we needed to tackle in Niagara and to establish a broad base of ideas upon which we would build our solutions. We were privileged to have so many leaders, experts and thinkers involved.

The speakers were leading figures in policy, research and economic development from the provincial, national and even international stages, but they still had that local connection to Niagara.

Judging by the dozens of questions and comments from the audience and over social media, the talks and the panels evidently struck a chord.

According to a post-event survey, the two issues foremost in the minds of the audience were the integration of our public transit systems and youth attraction and retention. Nine out of every 10 attendees rated these issues as very important to Niagara.

We have talked about these issues before, though.

Amalgamating public transit is something that has been on — and then off — regional and municipal agendas for years, and for years the Greater Niagara Chamber of Commerce has advocated for it.

Brock Dickinson, CEO of MDB Insight, gave a remarkable keynote speech in which he showed us how Vancouver had already done this, and how they could provide a viable model for Niagara.

On the discussion panel, we heard of the cost in lost hours and productivity when journeys from not far outside the region can take more than two hours to complete, due mostly to Niagara’s labyrinthine transit system.

The big transit-and-infrastructure issue on everyone’s minds is year-round GO train service, but capitalizing on that investment means ironing out the kinks in Niagara’s local public transit. If we are to make good use of this new artery to the GTA and Hamilton, we are going to need excellent feeder services to get Niagara’s residents to the GO stations and get our visitors out to their destinations once they arrive.

At the very least, that will require increased co-operation and co-ordination between Niagara’s many transit authorities, and a good model of how potential game-changers like Uber or self-driving cars can fit into the picture would help.

Kyle Rose, president of the Brock University students’ union, told us about the huge impact public transit in Niagara has on students, and it’s easy to guess what sort of effect that has on youth attraction and retention.

That topic has also been on agendas for years, and it’s not one Niagara alone faces — many or even most regions in Ontario struggle with the same problem.

At the GNCC, we see this issue predominantly as one of job creation. People did not flock to Fort McMurray, Alta. for a vibrant cultural scene, natural beauty or quality of life — they went there for the jobs. If Niagara can offer good jobs for young people, they will move here and stay here.

But good jobs need a good business climate. Another key issue attendees identified was red tape for businesses looking to trade, expand or start up in Niagara. While prudent regulation helps promote a sound economy, over-regulation can strangle it.

While governance reform is on many minds, simpler solutions might get results faster, such as the idea to create a government concierge service where businesses could deal with all their government and regulatory requirements in one place.

Whatever those solutions are, Ontario Chamber of Commerce vice-president Karl Baldauf told us Niagara has to “pick a lane and put its foot on the gas.” That is sound advice.

Of the issues raised at the summit, virtually none were completely new, but all were in need of decisive action.

Panellist Brent Porter of local digital design firm Form & Affect said the last thing he wanted was to come to next year’s summit and talk about all the same issues all over again because we had made no progress in the interim.

At the GNCC, we want to see the summit as the start of a process, not the end of it. This should be the beginning of many conversations and collaborations throughout the region.

We are committed to working with any and every organization, businessperson, decision-maker and leader in Niagara to advance the goals of prosperity and growth, and we invite anyone who shares those goals to work with us.

Finally, we shouldn’t become so mired in thinking about our problems that we fail to capitalize on our strengths.

Niagara Region’s Paul Connor, who delivered one of the panel summaries, remarked that he never heard a single negative thing about Niagara until he moved to Niagara.

We are a powerful region in tourism, agriculture, and energy, uniquely situated on the border crossing of a prosperous and innovative mega-region. We have fantastic educational institutions that are drivers of research and innovation. We have a wealth of natural beauty and a quality of life envied by many.

The question is, how can we do even better?

Mishka Balsom is the CEO and president of the Greater Niagara Chamber of Commerce

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