Mayor Randy Hope has made the bold prediction that Chatham-Kent will lead the province in economic recovery from the current recession. He claims to see signs that we will fare better than the rest of Ontario. Apparently, these signs still include significant hardships, bankruptcies, and foreclosures. Hope says this bright future will be realized despite acknowledging that, "The jobs that are leaving us are not coming back." However, Hope has not taken much concrete action to replace those jobs other than engage in wishful thinking.
Hope's rosy outlook comes amidst news of more job losses in Wallaceburg and Tilbury. Other employees are on reduced hours and anticipating some summer shutdowns. According to Stats Can, Windsor-Essex-Chatham-Kent has the highest unemployment in Ontario at 13.4%. Overall, there are 621,200 Ontario residents out of work, representing 8.7%. The accuracy of these figures may be in dispute, since workers not eligible for EI benefits are not included, and the federal government has started calculating self-employment as new job creation, without counting failed businesses in the unemployment figure. Hope may be planning to misinterpret future unemployment statistics by attributing new employment to those whose EI benefits have expired.
What Mayor Hope does not explain is where his thousands of predicted jobs will be coming from. It's one thing to demonstrate cautious optimism, but Hope's grandstanding may come without substance. It seems he's counting on wind energy and tourism, but isn't really sure of a plan beyond blind faith. The one company thought to be considering our vacant Bloomfield Industrial Park has suspended the effort due to economic conditions.
Immediately after being elected, the mayor endorsed a strategic plan to attract $3 billion in new industry to Chatham-Kent. Nothing is lined up to replace any lost jobs, and we have no idea yet what contract negotiations at Navistar might do to our local workforce. Layoff notices preceded company demands for concessions, but a strike could prompt the plant to be permanently closed. Chatham-Kent will be on edge until this is resolved. It's nearly two-thirds of the way through his term, but Hope hasn't even started to tackle his election promises.
For many years, I've been urging the municipal government to better promote tourism. Hope's solution is lower dockage fees. Unfortunately, many people simply are not travelling for vacations. Americans in particular are not willing to jump through border obstacles, face less-favourable exchange rates, and pay higher fuel costs to come exploring here. Even the venerable Wheels Inn is forced to restructure their previously-successful business model due to decreased American business. Several of the annual events that used to draw tourists are no longer being held. The truth remains that the Chatham-Kent vacation experience doesn't always match the brochure, and even a bustling tourist destination won't produce service-industry jobs on par with the manufacturing jobs we've lost.
In order to take advantage of tourism, the municipality needs to encourage the events and festivals that attract visitors. One of the biggest deterrents for these events is liability insurance. In my opinion, there should be a municipal insurance fund to underwrite all these community events, thus removing the largest obstacle to their viability. There also needs to be an event coordinator to avoid having major events happening on the same date. New methods of promoting the community as a destination need to be devised, such as partnering with local businesses to distribute brochures, and inventing events that require overnight stays.
Some of my previous suggestions included a Great Lakes Circle Tour. In fact, several mayors recently met to discuss ways to take advantage of proximity to the water. Despite being mayor of a municipality boasting the most Great Lakes shoreline in Ontario (albeit mostly private and parkless for long stretches), mayor Hope was absent from these discussions. Since fewer people will travel this year, we should be promoting day-trips in our own backyard. This includes encouraging family reunions to be held in Chatham-Kent. Too many times our municipality prices park and pavilion fees at levels that discourage use. One cannot underestimate the beneficial impact of having families reunite in Chatham-Kent for a weekend.
I have also urged the municipality to pay attention to emerging business trends. One such sector is wind energy. When I first contacted wind generation companies in 2003, none had even heard of Chatham-Kent. Coincidentally of course, we now have a thriving industry, perhaps sparked by some cold calls I made to promote our community, or perhaps not. The same thing must be done to attract manufacturers of green technology, to get Chatham-Kent on their radar.
I recently passed some timely details to Mayor Hope about a European wind turbine company planning to build manufacturing facilities in North America. He thanked me and claimed to have immediately sent them a letter (which reminds me of the wrong way to court a new industry, but that's another editorial). Hope now claims that industry representatives will be meeting in the municipality soon. Whether this is related remains to be seen, but it at least demonstrates the need for municipal officials to keep connected with global industry developments and identify emerging trends.
Mayor Hope further submits that local businesses are succeeding. This is more proof of his disconnect from reality. Not only are local businesses struggling, but they are doing so without access to credit and venture capital. Mayor Hope himself is responsible for the demise of a couple of businesses owned by his opponents. Of all the stimulus plans in place, not one addresses the unavailability of credit to small business. While I feel that small business will be the source of many new Chatham-Kent jobs in the future, this potential is being ignored by all levels of government.
Unfortunately, we can't trust that Hope's self-congratulatory back-patting will translate into the accelerated economic recovery he predicts. He does not propose any plan himself, but hopes solutions will be inspired by others. While he says this in public, he and his advisors are busy back-stabbing and discrediting the very people who are concerned enough about our realistic prospects to volunteer those solutions. It boils down to the fact that we elected a mayor who is not a leader, who relies on his handlers to set his agenda, and who appears to be asleep and dreaming instead of assessing the situation accurately.
The mayor bases his bold prediction of a bright future on the signs he sees. This isn't the first time these signs turned out to be less than credible. Hope claimed to have seen the recession coming based on the same signs, but did nothing proactive to lessen the impact. In fact, he ignored a meeting of over twenty mayors to discuss our struggling auto industry. It makes us wonder if he's reading the future of our municipality from Mary Lee's tea leaves.