Feb 11

Buffalo’s waterfront

Buffalo, New York has four times the population of Saint John (and an urban area only one third the size). However, the city had industrial roots similar to those of Saint John and once faced similar challenges. Buffalo has since reinvented itself through  investments in the educational and medical sectors.

As in Saint John, Buffalo’s waterfront is an important part of the urban landscape. Buffalo is now launching an initiative to re-vision its waterfront based on public engagement and the use of prompt, low-cost improvements. See link. It’s an interesting approach to place-making, and something to keep an eye on.

Feb 11

Watching our water

Saint John Airport has settled out of court with the City of Saint John after removing trees from City land and cutting into the protected Loch Lomond Watershed (one of two drinking water reservoirs for the City of Saint John). The offence took place in 2009, and the only reason I’m aware of it is because settlement documents showed up buried in the back of the supplement to the Saint John Common Council agenda packet from December 20, 2010 (link – large slow file, or excerpt 101220b excerpt SJ_Airport).

(Add another item to the list of stories the TJ chose not to report or simply missed. The City should also have made news of this incident more public, as water quality is front of mind for many Saint Johners.)

We’re all familiar now with the challenges of an aging water distribution system, but the issue of source water quality is something we need to think about too. This is also relevant to the discussions currently taking place throughout the province, and in this city, regarding wetlands protection and development.

The Airport/Watershed incident raises questions about what the City does – and what realistically it can do – to protect its source water. That’s especially important in areas where human activity and industrial lands crowd our reservoirs. To the west the Spruce Lake reservoir is relatively isolated from accidental damage – barring a major industrial or highway hazardous materials incident – but the Latimer Lake reservoir to the east is routinely vulnerable to the Airport (already proven to be a problem), a range of summer residences and recreational users on upstream waterways, and illegal backwoods dumping. (A watershed cleanup in November netted 23,000 kg of waste from the areas surrounding First Lake, Second Lake, Robertson Lake and Latimer Lake — see link.)

What rights does the City have to protect its water supplies, and what measures are available to enforce those rights? What role does the provincial Department of Environment play in these issues? What sanctions and protections are needed to prevent contamination of our water supplies, whether by the Airport, by other land owners adjacent to reservoirs, or by people who think it’s okay to dump refuse and contaminants beside the source of our drinking water?

And is the City even able to detect tampering? The Airport settlement refers to the incident happening ‘in or about 2009 and/or early 2010’. Not exactly precise. I’d be interested in knowing how long it took the City to notice the damage and how it became aware of the incident in the first place.

This was a near miss in that water quality was not immediately affected. But the risk of future problems has increased because of the damage to the watershed. The City – through this legal settlement – seems to have put the issue to bed, but hopefully not without a new awareness of the risks some of its ‘partners’ pose to the safety of Saint John’s drinking water. I also hope that the City is looking at ways to prevent this type of offence from being perpetrated again – whether by the Airport, other landowners or illegal dumpers.

For its part the Airport is paying the City $15,000 for ‘out of pocket expenses’ and making a $20,000 donation to environmental initiatives (the price I suppose of asking for forgiveness, not permission). That’s a real steal, especially since the Airport or its contractor walked off with ‘a significant amount of merchantable timber’. It doesn’t seem like much of an incentive to play it straight next time around.

Airport 1, City nil.

Feb 11

Read along with Enterprise Saint John

Anyone who’s read the news or the local tabloid in the last couple of months knows that the City of Saint John and Enterprise Saint John are squabbling. This isn’t new, despite assertions by some that this has come out of the blue and that no time has been given for ESJ to address Saint John’s concerns.

Frankly, I’m at a loss as to why ESJ has been caught by surprise.

The concerns raised recently are similar to those raised by the City in 2008, and as joe blow citizen I’ve been hearing rumblings of a coming storm with ESJ since the summer of 2010. Which tells me ESJ’s management needs to get out more.

In response to the blowup — and really in response to the City of Saint John dropping the hammer on ESJ by approving only half its funding for this year — the City and ESJ are forming a taskforce to examine economic development models. The taskforce is bringing together City and ESJ representatives to take a close look at how economic development is fostered now, how ESJ has been performing, whether City goals and interests are being served, and what alternatives might be viable.

At least, I hope that’s what they’re looking at. (Relevant Council minutes approving the taskforce aren’t yet available.) I trust that the taskforce’s terms of reference directly address the concerns that have been raised by the City: not only whether regional economic development is being fostered effectively, but whether the City’s own interests as a municipality are being furthered (or even considered).

What’s really on the table is ESJ’s future, since the City is considering abandoning the Enterprise model in favour of an in-house solution (which sounds less practical but would at least be fully under the direction of Saint John itself) or potentially in favour of a different provincially hosted/supported model (such as Invest NB).

It’s very important to everyone — City and ESJ both — that this be resolved quickly. Jobs are at stake at ESJ and nobody wants to live with a knife hanging over their heads. And the City is now at a crucial moment itself, with a municipal plan in the works and only about a year of effective Council governance left before everyone descends into the madness of the 2012 municipal election. I believe the target date for reaching some kind of consensus or determination on ESJ is the end of April. (Which doesn’t give the taskforce much time, given the depth of examination needed.)

I’m looking forward to seeing something substantive and definitive when they’re done. In the meantime, for those who are interested, here’s some light reading on ESJ’s past and current governance and structure (many thanks to ESJ for providing these on request):

ESJ has also recently added some useful detail to its About Us page.

I read these documents with an eye to how the interests of individual members (such as the City) are protected, but unfortunately the detail isn’t there. However, the 2002 supplement does outline the current makeup of the Board. Out of 16 seats, Saint John gets four, and another seat shared with the Saint John Board of Trade (BOT); ACOA gets three, and one shared with BOT; Business NB gets three, and one shared with BOT; and Rothesay, Quispamsis and Grand Bay Westfield each get one.

At first glance that looks like a reasonable mix. However, Saint John’s four or five seats are a minority when it comes to regional interests, since BOT, BNB and ACOA are regionally focused, and the three outlying municipalities are at best also regionally focused. This means that Board decisions are likely to compromise Saint John municipal interests for regional ones. (Which is what many have been complaining has been going on.)

In response to City criticisms on this point, some ESJ supporters have denounced the suggestion that regionalism is ‘bad’. But framing the argument in that way is overly simplistic. In my opinion regional interests are worthy and should be pursued. It’s also important that every individual participant get benefits that outweight the costs and risks they incur. Including Saint John. Unfortunately in many cases we’ve seen that regional interests can compete with Saint John’s interests as a municipality and the desires of Saint John citizens.

What’s good for the region is often bad for Saint John itself, especially when it comes to the specific ways that economic development is fostered and executed. In that context ESJ’s governance structure, and how ESJ protects the interests of individual members, is critically important.

Another key element in ESJ governance is the Mayor’s Caucus, about which I’ve found little information. The Caucus supposedly sets or approves strategic directives for ESJ. Each of the five municipal members of ESJ gets a seat: Saint John, Grand Bay Westfield, Rothesay, Quispamsis, and St. Martins. Depending on how this Caucus functions and exactly how it’s tied into overall governance, that simple structure could also be a problem. Again, Saint John municipal interests might be trumped by the equal votes of the other smaller towns, presumeably voting to protect regional interests over Saint John’s interests.

I’d like to know more about how the Mayor’s Caucus functions and how the Caucus and Board interact to set policy and strategy for the organization. I’m also hoping that minutes of the ESJ Board meetings are publicly available as well to perhaps demonstrate how this structure functions in real life. (If I come across more documents, I’ll post them here as an update.)

Finally, I’m trusting that the taskforce will examine not only performance and accountability, but also the governance structure and in fact the very mission of Enterprise Saint John in the context of competing regional and municipal interests.

Feb 11

Airport’s big ask

Bernard Leblanc of the Saint John Airport has been very vocal in the last few months about his desire that the City integrate the Airport into its municipal land-use plan in a way that suites the Airport’s needs. Specifically, Leblanc wants the Airport to be able to commercially develop its excess lands, and states that the Airport must be designated a commercial or industrial Opportunity Area to allow it to do that.

That assertion is confusing, as the Airport is federally regulated transportation infrastructure. The Airport doesn’t need City zoning or permission. It can, within its federal jurisdiction, do whatever it wants with its 400 acres of excess land. It seems this isn’t a matter of the City ‘allowing’ the Airport to do anything.

Instead, I fear the Airport’s desire to be designated an Opportunity Area has more to do with the specific infrastructure and investment benefits that come with that designation. Infrastructure and investments that would be paid for by Saint John taxpayers. This fear is confirmed by a draft planning document produced by the Airport in June 2010, in which it said one component of its strategy must be: Working with the City of Saint John to achieve connection of the airport site to the City’s water and sewage distribution system. I think the Airport wants to be an Opportunity Area because the City would then be obligated to pay for the delivery of municipal services to the Airport.

That isn’t a trivial ask. The cost of running water, sewer and storm lines out to the Airport would be ballpark $20 million or higher. Yet Leblanc insists the Airport isn’t looking for any money from the City. Either Leblanc doesn’t understand what it is he’s asking for, or he’s hoping we don’t.

There’s no argument about the importance of the Airport. It’s crucial, and we’re far better off having one in this region. Hard decisions are likely going to be needed – by both the City of Saint John and other regional municipalities – about what types of investment to make in the Airport. But that clearly falls outside the scope of PlanSJ. The Airport requires a coordinated, regional strategy that brings together all its partners. The days of Saint John taxpayers fronting the bills for people in the burbs are over.

The Airport needs to develop a business plan to ensure its sustainability, and it needs to seek out support throughout its catchment area and from all levels of government. It also needs to be clear with partners and taxpayers about exactly what it’s asking for.