I have stated before, in this space and elsewhere, that I believe most of the efforts to revitalize our downtown cores to be misguided.
To be clear, I support the idea of revitalizing them and think it's an important goal to achieve, I just don't think anyone is going about it in the right way. It isn't about taxation and development restrictions. It's about people.
Business moves to where the people are. This is a truth that you can track all through history. Communities didn't start because some business opened in the wilderness. They started because people began to congregate in a particular area and businesses followed, opening to provide needed goods and services.
The same is true today. People left the downtown looking for a better place to live in the suburbs and businesses eventually followed, locating in those same suburbs or grouping together in nearby business parks.
Until we refocus on making the downtown a people-first destination, efforts to bring back business will return mediocre results at best.
That's why I am concerned – actually disturbed may be a better word – by some of the rhetoric I hear coming out of some candidates running for council in the upcoming municipal elections. I routinely hear comments about how the business parks are somehow the source of downtown's problems and need to be slapped down in order for the downtown to return to prosperity. Most often trotted out is the need to rebalance the taxation system by raising commercial rates for companies located outside the downtown core.
This to me is the biggest load of manure I have ever heard. Downtown is a premier location, or so we are constantly told, and in every other sector of the economy there is always a premium paid for a premiere product.
Even putting that aside, if we agree that servicing businesses downtown is more efficient due to their higher density, then why not reduce taxes downtown? Why not reward companies for choosing downtown, rather than punishing companies for choosing a business park? If Halifax is truly open for business, don't we want to send the message that we have something to offer, rather than we'll smack you with disincentives if you don't do what we want you to do?
In case you believe this is just me spouting off again, I offer below a sample from the platform of one mayoral candidate, namely Tom Martin, who is quite clear on where he stands in regards to the future of our business parks – which, by the way, collectively return far more to our municipal coffers than all of the downtown. Listen to his words:
• Martin wants to "change the current Business Tax Structure so that commercial taxes are based on the size of the lot and location of the business." In other words, larger lots in business parks would pay more.
• Martin wants to "introduce a Small Business Tax Rate similar to Provincial and
Federal tax rates for locally owned small business in the urban core." What about all the small, locally owned companies in the business parks?
• Martin wants to "review the pricing practices for business park lands and to ensure that HRM is selling our business park lands at fair market value." The insinuation is that staff isn't already doing this, a false and baseless accusation. Martin seems to believe he and council can decide what is "fair market value" and not the marketplace. I think we all know where higher rates of government control of the free market can lead us.
I believe such rhetoric only leads to division. Rather than blaming and pointing fingers, we should be coming together and seeking innovative ideas to preserve the industry and good paying jobs that even Martin admits the business parks have attracted to our city, while at the same time putting a greater emphasis on making the downtown a better place to live and enjoy so that first people and then businesses will come flooding back in.