They’re Just Facts

By on April 30, 2015
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By Mike Archer. Former Mayor Bruce Banman once told me it was awfully hard to put a positive spin on the Abbotsford economy with Abbotsford Today publishing the monthly unemployment figures which have consistently demonstrated we have the highest unemployment in Western Canada for over a decade now. Two of the reasons for that show up in the other two major economic indicators: housing starts and building permits.

The latter are a major indication of how likely the former is to increase or decrease. If nobody is building homes, businesses or industrries there are no new places for people to work. If it lasts for a prolonged period, unemployment stays high and the participation rate decreases as people eventually give up and stop looking for work.

Councillor Dave Loewen has traditionally blamed Mission for our high unemployment. Former Councillor Bill McGregor blamed it on the natives. Others point out that since the numbers are for the whole Census Metropolitan Area (CMA) not all of the blame for our poor jobs numbers lies at the feet of Abbotsford’s Chamber of Commerce or the Abbotsford Downtown Business Association (ADBA) –  each of which have had (until recently) a secret tunnel to the mayor’s office and have cloaked themselves in the dual flags of job creation and being the heart and soul of the local economy.

True enough. But trends in economic indicators which last for decades do reveal something important.

Unemployment

Interpreting unemployment statistics is indeed more complicated than merely focusing on the percentage. Other things definitely come into play such as the participation rate – which in our case has been dropping as the unemployment rate has been rising. That means that even with fewer people looking for work every month, our unemployment rate has stayed high. Higher by a long shot than other cities in Western Canada.

Abbotsford suffers from structural unemployment based the City’s inability to attract business or industry which needs anything more than low taxes, cheap labour and access to transportation. As a result, the only jobs we create tend to be warehouse or service sector, minimum wage, part-time work.

Housing Starts

Regardless of increases or decreases, we have had a housing and construction market which has been virtually asleep by comparison, not only to our neighbours in the Fraser Valley, but in comparison to other Canadian cities of similar or even smaller size.

Some of the cities of comparable size in Canada’s rust belt, which are being devastated by the Harper government’s lack of attention to manufacturing and nearly complete focus on easy oil patch money, are posting housing start number which are double ours despite having a similar or even smaller population base.

Very few communities in Canada have such easy and cheap transportation access (airport, railway, TransCanada Highway, easy access to a major world port and a border crossing) yet we seem almost paralyzed when it comes to taking advantage of our situation. Read the economic indicators … the numbers don’t lie.

Building Permits

City Hall and the newspapers have always shouted gleefuly whenever there has been an increase in building permits issued. They both know it is an important measure of our economic success so they never miss a beat when there is good news to report.

Both have been pretty silent on the topic of building permits for the last decade. Other than the mini condo boom of the last decade building permits issued have fundamentally remained stagnant, just like – go figure – housing starts and unemployment. Building permits are an indication of how many people, businesses and developers are intent on constructing new premises – homes; condo, apartments; industrial or commercial real estate.

For a city our size we might as well have put up a sign telling developers there is no money to be made here. And developers, other than a few who are fervently devoted to making money off of the local land they own, have read the signs. Even local land developers have pulled up stakes and, in order to support themselves and make money, moved on to much greener pastures in Vancouver, Kelowna or even Calgary.

I’m not sure whether or not Banman was trying to get us to stop publishing economic indicators such as the unemployment rate or trying to blame unemployment on Abbotsford Today. What I do know is that fixing unemployment in Abbotsford was his job. Telling people how he was doing was mine.

Either way, Abbotsford Today has been the only local news media to publish economic indicators on a monthly basis whether they sound good or bad. After all … they are just facts. As a community we can’t honestly believe that we should only look at facts when they make us feel good about the people who are running things.

And the economic facts are:

  • Abbotsford/Mission has (and has had for years) the highest unemployment and one of the lowest participation rates in all of Western Canada.
  • Except for the occasional institutional or commercial burst of activity, Abbotsford’s construction industry has been on virtual standby for a decade with the number of housing starts resembling those of a community less than half our size.
  • The number of building permits issued, again … despite the occasional spike … has been on a steady decline for a decade.

I have repeatedly stated over the years that it is not the media’s job to promote or act as  a cheerleader for a City’s efforts to sell itself to its own citizens. They already have taxpayer money with which to promote themselves … and they certainly do promote themselves.

Rather – and again this my own point of view – I’ve always believed it is the media’s role to question the self-promotion of politicians, government officials and community leaders do, and publish facts and arguments which offer a different view of things.

Abbotsford is the only community in which I have ever worked as a journalist where economic facts – as determined by Statistics Canada, Canada Mortgage and Housing and the Vancouver Regional Construction Association – are such a touchy subject.

Abbotsford News screengrab showing no change in jobs despite population increase.

Abbotsford News screen grab showing no change in jobs despite population increase.

Like the silence emanating from the Abbotsford Chamber of Commerce after they proudly called themselves job creators last month in the Abbotsford News and we pointed out that, according to the Abbotsford News’ own figures there had been no meaningful job growth since 2008 despite a steady (but slow) increase in population. the lack of growth in areas of the economy where those people could work is certainly a contributing factor.

It is also a reason why Abbotsford’s homeless population and the number of people relying on the Foodbank to survive keep relentlessly rising.

Planning And Economic Development Advances

City hall has made some giant strides in revising our building bylaws and streamlining the process for people with money who want to invest in Abbotsford. Soon it will be possible to move away from providing tax breaks, tax holidays and financial guarantees just to get businesses to locate here.

Today’s Planning and Economic Development functions at Abbotsford City Hall run efficiently and smoothly compared to the mess of only three or four years ago. People at City Hall will warn you there is a long way to go but we are getting there.

They’re Just Facts

The future is not yet so bright we have to wear shades but, under the new mayor and council things do seem to be moving in a better direction. Whether our insular and self-interested business community organizations will follow suit or simply keep regurgitating their self-serving tripe about being job creators and engines of the economy remains to be seen.

It would help if the media publish the facts on which most communities in the Western world make their decisions instead of hiding their heads in the sand and only reporting good news.

I’m left to wonder which facts our community leaders are relying on to make decisions about how to spend our money if the standard economic indicators used by everyone else in the Western World are so distasteful to them.

Or is it just that they would rather not have those numbers shared with the general public who pay their salaries and might ask questions they’d rather not have to answer?

In much the same the same way as Prime Minister Harper’s aversion to academia, science, statistics or facts in general, has led to some pretty bad economic decisions, it does not bode well for those paying for the whole shebang when our community leaders prefer the view from inside the Ostrich’s hole in the ground rather than out here where the air is fresh and you can see for miles.

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