The Greater Niagara Chamber of Commerce, as Niagara’s largest business organization, wishes to offer these comments on the Government of Ontario’s proposal to review and potentially alter the governance structure of Niagara.
Our mandate is to improve business competitiveness in Niagara and to foster an environment where our members can thrive. The GNCC is agnostic on the question of what the model should be. Instead, we are focused on optimal service delivery for businesses and citizens at the lowest possible cost to taxpayers.
Niagara is unique in all Canada for its blend of strengths. It is a region that contains both the urban and the rural, with a relaxed pace of life, yet within striking distance of several major metropoles by highway or rail. It sees a huge influx of tourists every year. It has a manufacturing base and a major internet backbone passes through it, yet it is also renowned for agriculture and wine. Niagara is truly a global location, not just situated on a busy border crossing between two highly active G7-economy trading partners, but is a world-renowned destination.
Yet despite these numerous strengths, Niagara consistently underperforms. Population growth has failed to meet projections and targets for decades, with low rates of immigrant attraction and some parts of the region in population decline. Unemployment rates are higher than the provincial and national averages, while median wages are lower. Despite large quantities of available land and urban areas whose density could easily be increased, Niagara has an affordable housing crisis that approaches the intensity of Toronto’s, a major city with neither. Developers report that projects take far longer to get off the ground owing to red tape, and initiatives like integrated public transit are mired and unable to move forward.
We are keen to see a single economic development department with specialized staff that can attract new businesses, employers, and industries to Niagara. We need an earnest, overarching, and effective attempt to solve our affordable housing crisis. We require a single public transit system that meets the needs of our citizens and recognizes that people do not live, work, study, or shop in the same place or even the same municipality. We should have a single planning department that facilitates development rather than obstructs it through red tape and bureaucracy, and a single public works department for efficiency and better service to our citizens. We need an effective strategy for youth retention that ensures not only that our children do not want to leave, but that the young people of other regions want to come here to build their careers and their lives.
However, we are also aware that municipal government reforms have always cost the taxpayer in one form or another. Knowing the increasing financial burdens that businesses and residents face, not to mention the financial situation of municipal governments themselves, we would only support costly measures if it can be demonstrated that these measures will offer a good return on investment for local stakeholders in economic development, employment, the cost of living, or other important economic and social metrics.
Studies of previous amalgamations and reforms have also shown that speed is the chief driving factor behind cost. The GNCC therefore urges decisionmakers to take the time to get whatever is proposed right, and to keep costs to a minimum.
What the structural solution looks like is yet to be determined, but we can at least bear in mind the results we want to see from it. The final form of government must reflect these items. Government should create the conditions for the success of business, the arts and culture, charities and non-profits, health, education, and the flourishing of its citizens. Finally, any structure of government should be a means to an end, not an end in and of itself.
The Greater Niagara Chamber of Commerce is the largest business organization in Niagara and the second-largest Chamber of Commerce in Ontario, with 1,500 members representing 50,000 employees. More information on the GNCC is available at gncc.ca.
Mishka Balsom, President & CEO of GNCC
Mishka@gncc.ca or 905-684-2361