Give capitalists the ball, let them run

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By Leo Valiquette

The Ottawa-Gatineau economy, according to the Conference Board of Canada’s Mario Lefebvre, is one that cannot be counted down and out.

That was the sentiment he delivered last week at Forecasting Ottawa’s Economic Future, an inaugural event that featured his outlook for the local economy and a panel discussion with frank perspectives from several of Ottawa’s business leaders.

Lefebvre reviewed Ottawa’s performance through the worst of the economic downturn in 2009 and 2010, a period during which it suffered losses in employment and GDP that were often marginal compared to other major urban centres across Canada. In fact, in the darkest days of 2009, disposable income continued to rise, thanks in part to continued job growth in the federal public sector; job growth that, at this point in time, outstrips the program spending cuts since announced by the Harper government. Despite that belt tightening, Lefebvre remains bullish on the local economy’s outlook beyond 2013 thanks largely to the presence of the public service.

Lefebvre emphasized, and rightly so, that, as the boomers enter retirement, it is those cities which can attract and retain skilled workers that will attract employers. Ottawa, with a relatively affordable high standard of living, has been, and remains, a magnet for highly educated individuals.

But what’s new in all of this?

A skilled, educated and bilingual workforce has always been Ottawa’s big advantage. Every damned marketing push to promote this city in the past two decades has trotted out these same old standbys. The question for Ottawa isn’t how to attract people, but what to do with them. It isn’t enough to simply sit back and hope that where skilled workers go, employers will follow. Ottawa has been down this dark road far too many times before. We can’t afford to rely on being a branch plant town. We need to create a next generation of homegrown success stories with head offices that are entrenched here.

This is of course the current preoccupation of the newly minted Invest Ottawa and the mayor’s office. Mark Sutcliffe, who serves on the boards of both Invest Ottawa and the Ottawa Chamber of Commerce and was MC for the event, applauded Mayor Jim Watson for taking decisive action to mend Ottawa’s broken economic development strategy. It is a kudo that is well-earned.

Still, I remain somewhat leery of any economic development initiative that takes its strategic direction from an elected official, or that has its operations so closely tied to a public sector bureaucracy. We’ve written before about the role government must play in economic development and it is not one with a place on the front line.

A couple of weeks ago I happened to cross paths with a former member of the board for Invest Ottawa’s predecessor, OCRI. She had decided to step away despite her years of executive experience solely because of city hall’s intervention. That is disappointing, considering that it’s experienced captains of industry who must be engaged to lead Ottawa’s economic future.

Another sentiment shared on this blog came up during the panel discussion – the need to pick, and back, winners. This is most certainly a subjective process that must be left to those individuals with first-hand experience in getting a product to market and the battle scars to show for it, who have the proven acumen to evaluate, not only the commercial potential of an idea, but also the ability of the executive team to execute.

After the event, I spoke with one of Ottawa’s serial entrepreneurs doing his part to work with Invest Ottawa. For him, the issue isn’t bureaucrats trying to play a role best left to experienced entrepreneurs, but an instinctive reluctance to do anything other than provide the same opportunity to any would-be entrepreneur who walks in the door. However, if there is not a concerted effort to focus the bulk of Invest Ottawa’s resources on those top 30, 20 or even 10 percent of prospects (in any industry) with the best chance of success, the effort will be far too diluted to be effective.

Hard choices are necessary. Economic development programs can’t succeed if they are regarded as government programs that must be fair to all. Ottawa must lever its advantages, such as its skilled workforce and its appeal as a great place to live and work, but it can’t rely on them to do the heavy lifting.

Mayor Watson has set the agenda, but what we need now to see it through are red-blooded capitalists who are allowed to pick up the ball and run.

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