A new strategy designed to boost Yellowknife’s economy over the next four years isn’t bold or adventurous enough, one city councillor claimed on Tuesday.
The strategy instructs the City of Yellowknife to “act with a sense of urgency” in developing the local economy. City Hall is told to make its regulations more business-friendly, show more leadership, and do more to attract tourists and workers.
The document, prepared by a consultant with input from a specially created “task force” of bureaucrats and business owners, awaits formal adoption by councillors at their next meeting.
Work to create the document took place before the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic. The consultant, Ted Weicker, said the pandemic “only added to” the urgency with which action should be taken.
Councillor Julian Morse, however, felt the proposed strategy wasn’t nearly visionary enough to make a significant difference.
“It’s a plan to continue with the existing situation with very minor, insignificant tweaks,” said Morse.
“I see it as being 95-percent status quo. It is a statement of what exists … and effectively doing a lot of what we’ve already been doing.”
Morse had support from Councillor Shauna Morgan, who said the strategy wasn’t “very strategic.”
“I was hoping for it to identify specific areas where we could pivot or … key moments where a little tweak or nudge could make a big difference. I didn’t really see any of that,” she said.
Mayor Rebecca Alty, defending the document, said residents “want our plan to be realistic.”
Alty said the plan accurately reflected the sentiments of local business owners who joined her economic development task force – a group of more than 20 people who met regularly to help create the eventual strategy.
‘Untapped’ economic potential
One of Morse’s main objections was, in his view, a lack of genuinely new direction in the City’s attempts to kickstart its economy.
Hanging over the discussion is the looming closure of the NWT’s diamond mines in the next five to 15 years – plus the new and unprecedented damage wrought by Covid-19.
Morse felt the strategy being proposed rehashed tired sentiments about diversifying the economy to soften the blow of mining’s demise, without actually suggesting any real diversification.
“There’s a lot of economic development potential here that I think is completely untapped and not being talked about,” Morse told fellow councillors at a public meeting to discuss the strategy on Tuesday.
He listed areas like green energy research and district heating, whereby many buildings are heated through the same system.
“That kind of emergent stuff, I was really hoping we would start to go in directions like that,” he said.
Morgan said the answer for her was “not necessarily brand-new technologies … but at least looking at small seeds that need a bit of a nudge to grow and take off.”
Instead, she said, the strategy contained “a lot of very broad brushstrokes [like] the idea of setting up more committees and groups to investigate very broad things, that I feel will have us spinning our wheels and running in circles.”
She continued: “What I hear most often from the business community is to stop setting up more committees.”
No time for risks?
Councillor Niels Konge said he understood the sentiments expressed by Morgan and Morse, but backed up Alty’s suggestion that businesses were seeking realism.
“I hear what the councillors are saying, but we have to remember that this report was put together in conjunction with the mayor’s task force and there was a lot of business representation on that task force,” he said.
“I don’t think you’re going to see businesses, in the next 12 to 24 months, taking big risks. Our economy was OK [prior to the pandemic], people were doing OK but not taking a lot of risks.
“We need to be diligent and careful in what programs we decide to roll out. When we do decide which ones we want to roll out, we definitely do need to support them.”
Weicker, the consultant, said the strategy his firm had produced was “very much the strategy of the mayor’s task force” and the businesses represented in that group.
“No one, single development will offset the impact of mine closures. When the gold mine closed, the diamond mines came along at a very opportune time. There isn’t a silver bullet at this point,” Weicker told councillors.
“You need to take an aggressive approach. There is a window … and it is critically important that the City act. The impact of Covid-19 just increases the importance of making economic development a priority.”
Five economic goals
The document sets out five economic goals for the City and actions that will help it achieve them.
Firstly, the municipality is told to become a strong leader and advocate for economic development. To do so, there are measures related to improving governance and doing more advocacy work to get initiatives up and running that help businesses.
Secondly, the strategy demands “a positive climate for business” in the City. That involves setting up a business retention program that looks at reasons why businesses might close or leave, then tries to address those issues. It also might mean cutting back on regulations, and means asking the NWT government for more land.
Land access has long been an issue for the City, which is trying to change the way land inside its boundaries is handed from the GNWT to City Hall. (Konge said he agreed with the land access concern but felt regulatory concerns were in the eye of the beholder.)
Next, the strategy tells the City to do more to bring in tourists and new residents and workers. That means a better marketing and communications strategy, among other supporting measures.
Fourthly, the strategy recommends exploring a business incubation program (to help new businesses thrive) or an accelerator (to grow existing ones), alongside better “northern preference policies” that hand more work to locals.
Lastly, the strategy tells the City to make sure key economic sectors are growing and integrated with each other.
That means “championing the development of the polytechnic university,” the report states, while doing more to show the mining and exploration industries that Yellowknife will support them. Other measures include revitalizing the city’s downtown, expanding cold-weather testing, and introducing more urban agriculture.
Councillor Stacie Smith noted that downtown revitalization had been at the heart of the last economic development strategy, which ran from 2014 to 2019. Little has changed in that time, with major concerns like the vacant lot at 50 Street and 50 Avenue still unresolved.
“We’ve already used up those previous five years. Now we’re on to the next and, really, there haven’t been any huge, recognizable stepping stones toward this,” she said.
Morse said the City needed to take more of a leadership role in driving forward work on the new university – Yellowknife expects to get a new campus building out of the deal, and some economic investment – but he took issue with the idea of doing more to vocalize Yellowknife’s support for mining.
He said Yellowknifers’ embrace of mining and exploration was “so overwhelmingly obvious it seems almost silly to state it out loud.”
Morse continued: “I don’t really feel it’s necessary to go trumpeting it around all the time. The GNWT spends huge amounts of money doing that already.
“We’ve got one industry that we’ve been focusing on almost exclusively. I’d really like to see us branching out … rather than ‘diversifying’ by doing everything the same. That’s not what diversification is about.”
The strategy will come forward for council approval at a future meeting.