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Finlayson: Greater Vancouver Regional Economic Policy Needed (Vancouver Sun)

In today’s global economy, the competition for talent, investment and high-value business activity increasingly is playing out at the metropolitan level.

According to the Brookings Institution’s Global Metro Monitor, the 300 biggest cities account for almost half of world production and consumption, despite being home to only one-fifth of the human population. Canada has six metro areas big enough to rank in Brookings’ top 300 list: Toronto, Montreal, Greater Vancouver, Ottawa-Gatineau, Calgary and Edmonton.

The idea of the “global city” or “global city-region,” first coined by U.S. sociologist Saskia Sassen two decades ago, has been taken up by academic researchers, business analysts and policy-makers. In B.C., Greater Vancouver — consisting of more than 20 municipalities with a combined population that’s fast approaching 2.5 million — clearly fits the definition of a global city-region, even though few local residents or political leaders appear to think in these terms.

Two notable characteristics of most thriving global city-regions are that they serve as trading hubs for the provinces/states/countries in which they are located, and they host a sizable number of export-focused industries and firms. Engaging in trade and other forms of commerce with outside markets increases the prosperity of urban regions by generating external income and bringing in new wealth, ideas, knowledge and people. In fact, the importance of international (and inter-regional) trade is such that it deserves to be at the core of the economic development strategies adopted by major urban centres.

Understanding the critical role of international and interprovincial trade in underpinning the economic well-being of Greater Vancouver has been hampered by the region’s division into a multiplicity of different-sized towns and cities — all overseen by a weak regional government that lacks authority and competence in matters such as economic development, trade, and business and investment promotion.

Metro Vancouver has no regionally defined economic development plan, export strategy or relevant programming. But Greater Vancouver’s fragmentation need not preclude taking a more region-wide approach to these issues.

In this regard, Metro Vancouver policy-makers may want to take a look at what’s unfolding in Portland, Ore. Like Metro Vancouver, the Portland metro area consists of a host of individual cities and towns (some are actually located across the border in Washington state).

Two years ago, local governments in the region partnered with educational institutions and industry to create a single regional economic development body, Greater Portland Inc., which has gained traction and may soon produce positive results ( Its core mandate is to support the retention, expansion and targeted recruitment of businesses and jobs in the Portland region.

The organization’s board of directors is made up of municipal leaders from across Greater Portland, along with representatives of business, universities and other key institutions. Funding to support the agency’s economic and business development programs comes from area cities, two county governments, post-secondary institutions, and a few large companies.

Recently, Greater Portland Inc. launched a regional export strategy (the Greater Portland Export Initiative, GPEI). Since 2002, the Portland area has doubled the value of exports, one of the most impressive records among all U.S. metro areas. The goal of the GPEI is to build on this success by further enhancing the ability of local companies to access global markets, strengthen their linkages with global supply chains, and grow high-paying jobs tied to trade.

Metro Vancouver policy-makers and business leaders may profit by studying the model that’s evolving in Greater Portland.

Like Portland, this region needs to look at ways to bring greater coherence and effectiveness to the economic development and trade/investment promotion work being undertaken by individual municipalities. The B.C. government should also support such an effort given the Lower Mainland’s demographic weight and many vital contributions to the provincial economy.

In particular, leveraging Metro Vancouver’s existing assets to build stronger clusters of traded industries capable of selling in outside markets would help to boost incomes and support more high-paying jobs in the region.

Among the traded industries with a sizable presence in the Vancouver area are advanced manufacturing; international education; information and communications technologies; tourism; scientific, technical and environmental services; finance; agri-food; wireless products and technologies; health research and the life sciences; and engineering and other professional services.

Transportation, logistics and trade-related infrastructure such as the airport and the port are also a critical part of Metro Vancouver’s export base. All of these industry clusters have upside potential linked to the growth of global demand. A coordinated regional strategy that pools resources to strengthen and expand these traded industry clusters would produce economic benefits for the entire province while increasing the prosperity of B.C.’s dominant population centre.

Jock Finlayson is executive vice-president and chief policy officer at the Business Council of British Columbia.

© Copyright (c) The Vancouver Sun

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