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Vanishing Vanhattan: Which candidates have the right ideas when it comes to our local economy and small businesses?

Photo: Wes Regan

It's the most wonderful time of the year.

Yes, if you're a political junkie elections beat out the holidays in terms of sheer excitement, adrenaline and full contact family arguments at the dinner table...or on the patio, or in the car, or driveway...anyhow.

Amidst the flurry of debates and panel discussions, it seems one issue just can't make it into the inner circle of rhetoric and aspirations. The role of local government when it comes to our local economy.

Is it too technical? Too dry? Too small when compared to the other issues?

Yes housing and affordability are probably the two biggest dragons we have to slay in Vancouver but local economic development is one area where the City can exercise a clear mandate (that is to say, it is well within its powers) and make progress towards attracting and fostering better jobs, enabling affordable space for locally owned independent businesses and activating our languishing industrial lands. So how come every election we barely hear a peep about what the City can do to better support the tens of thousands of small and medium-sized businesses that make up nearly 90% of our employment base?

Well, this time around we actually did get to see candidates unpack this space for a few hours this past Thursday, when local business owners, concerned residents, students and local non-profits all packed into the alternative grassroots economics school Groundswell on East Powell Street. To listen to the CJSF story and live audio of the debate visit their SoundCloud page. 

The conversation started with this straightforward inquiry. What can, or should, the City do to ensure that Vancouver sees a more inclusive and healthy local economy? This was the opening question posed to the candidates by Simon Fraser University's Peter Hall, Professor of Urban Studies and Geography, panel moderator for the evening. 

The evening progressed from there, and as it did the candidates shared different observations or opinions about where that line between can and should was, and equally different ideas about local government's role in the economy. Finally we're getting into it!

On the panel were incumbents Andrea Reimer of Vision Vancouver, George Affleck of the NPA and candidates Audrey Seigl of COPE and Pete Fry of the Green Party

I suppose the good news, for those of us concerned about retail gentrification in our communities, jobs, and the purchasing power of Vancouverites, is that all four panelists agree that we can do better. How we get there varied greatly however. Here's a quick snapshot of some of the key differences. 

Small business, social enterprise, wages, affordability etc. 

Audrey Seigl: Living Wage should be implemented in Vancouver, wages and cost of housing are both at the core of our unaffordability crisis. A more collaborative process for involving citizens in decision making and planning in the city. More diversity needed on City Council that reflects the demographics of the city more accurately. 

George Affleck: High taxes are preventing small businesses from further investing in employees. The City should continue adjusting the commercial to residential ratio and free up businesses to expand and create more jobs. A small business owner himself he was also a board member of Modo, he understands the barriers that small businesses and co-ops face and has been taking time to take tours through all the city's Business Improvement Areas to learn more. 

Andrea Reimer: The City needs to find more ways to support co-ops, social enterprise and other social purpose businesses (procurement, affordable retail space) and should, similar to European cities, hire a Local Economic Planner, or create a Local Economic Development body similar to the VEC but focused on these types of local issues affecting SMEs. The City can also play a role in advocacy as it engages other policy makers (levels of government usually) that have jurisdiction and funding over the issues that the City doesn't, but that relate to local economic development, small business, social enterprise etc. A separate small business class for taxes (currently they pay the same rate if they are mom and pop or a major corporation) 

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