Mr. Momentum

Mr. Momentum
Photo by David Corkum

Greater Moncton’s newest best friend explains his grand passion for his adopted home town

Ben Champoux has made a productive career, and happy life, far from his Quebec roots, building teams of people who have kept Greater Moncton at the top of its economic game for years. Now, with a newly rebranded and repositioned regional development corporation, with Champoux as CEO preaching the gospel of cooperation, the urban area is setting sail in a new direction that somehow seems. . .well, familiar.

When Ben Champoux told his pals in Montreal that he was leaving that fine, cosmopolitan city, they assumed he had scored a big job close to a ski resort. After all, the young, Quebec-born-and-raised economist was a hopeless aficionado of the slopes – probably one of the few among his tight crew who actually mourned the annual death of the long, dark Canadian winter.

One imagines them all seated, crosslegged, drawing slowly, deliberately from their pall-malls, on the patio of a pretty cafe in The Plateau, where the late, great Mordecai Richler once nightly nursed his single malt. It would have been a sultry, early summer evening, when young lovers were out and even the head-bangers, mimes and buskers failed, for once, to irritate.

Likely, it was nothing like this. But habituated stereotypes of cities and the cultures they engender are hard to kick, as they were in 1998 when Champoux’s friends, a little saddened by his news, wished him well, anyway.

“So, where are you going?” they asked. “It must be Calgary or Vancouver. The mountains are good there. Plenty of skiing.”

Nope, Champoux grinned. “I’m heading east,” he said.

“Oh… fantastic… You’re going to Europe… The Alps… You’re going to love it.”

Nope, Champoux grinned again. “I’m off to Moncton. . .You know, it’s in New Brunswick.”

Silence… and then a convivial roar of laughter. “You must be mad,” was the consensus.

As we confab together in Champoux’s third-floor office on the periphery of Moncton’s downtown, I spy the corner of Main Street and Vaughan-Harvey Boulevard, where a Sobeys grocery store stands alongside a provincial liquor outlet, a Goodlife gym for women (and only for women), and a bearded, young man with a mutt in a red neckerchief bearing a sign that reads (upon later, closer inspection), “My owner will do anything to be out of this place.”

From where I sit, there are no ski hills to behold; only the muddy Petitcodiac River winding its aggressively slow way down to the sea through a gate under a causeway that was designed, in 1968, to staunch its flow and render the waterfront a fetid, mosquitoriven, mucky mess. And, as a muggy weather front from Quebec threatens to dump a torrent on what any Montrealer would consider nowheresville in the heat of an early July afternoon, I almost wonder whether Champoux’s big city chums had a point.

Some of this I say aloud. Most, I keep to myself. That’s a good thing, as it turns out. For the freshly minted CEO of the freshly minted 3+ Corporation (formerly Enterprise Greater Moncton), the new regional economic development corporation for the Greater Moncton area (Moncton, Riverview and Dieppe), is on a roll. It would be downright rude of me to intrude on his reveries. It might even be hazardous to my health – so emphatic is he about the tri-city’s capabilities, potentialities and glittering, limitless horizon.

“I am absolutely passionate about this community,” he says. No, it’s not perfect, he allows. Still, “from the moment I arrived, there was something… a spirit of entrepreneurship, a can-do atmosphere… a sense of constant re-invention and resurgence… Honestly, what’s not to love about that?”

It’s truly hard to argue with this guy without feeling like a genuine malcontent. He’s 43 years-young, handsome, intelligent, educated, fluently bilingual in Canada’s two official languages, married, the adoptive father of two children from earthquake-ravaged Haiti… trim… tall. I could go on.

The bottom line: He would be annoyingly personable if he weren’t such good company. Hell, if he didn’t exist – had he never abandoned his cosmopolitan provenance and genial, hipster, bourgeoise confederates to alight here – Greater Moncton’s civic leaders would have had to invent him. As it is, they’re merely delighted and perhaps a little relieved.

“This. . .position plays a very important and dynamic role for regional economic development,” Robert Irving, chair of Enterprise Greater Moncton’s (EGM) economic leadership council, said on the occasion of Champoux’s appointment last November. “Ben brings… the combination of education, experience, energy, and the passion for our region that is required for… successful leadership.”

Indeed, said Lois Scott, chair of EGM’s board of directors, at that time, “(We) were looking for a highly motivated, results-oriented, innovative and bilingual leader with an entrepreneurial… attitude; someone who had already earned the respect of our municipal and private-sector partners. (We) are confident we have recruited a person with all the required skills to lead the organization going forward.”

Reading between their lines, you get the impression that there’s not a little at stake for New Brunswick’s Hub City, which is having another of its urgent conversations with itself – an exercise for which it is justly famous across Canada.

Back in the late 1980s, when the Canadian National Railway’s repair shops shut down, Greater Moncton had to literally reinvent itself. Thousands of workers were left pounding the pavement. Dozens of oncethriving businesses that had relied on the railway’s economic contribution to the community simply vanished. Champoux, who was not here to witness the catastrophe first-hand, is, nevertheless, steeped in its lore.

“I’ve used the analogy of the stock market to make sense of that period,” he says. “With CN, it was as if Greater Moncton had gone all in on Nortel. Then came the crash. So, over the next 25 years, the community deliberately diversified its portfolio and became this well-balanced mutual fund. To the outside world, the 1990s became known as the era of the ‘Greater Moncton miracle.'”

Indeed, the tri-city area of today looks almost nothing like the tri-city area of a quarter-century ago. Unlike much of New Brunswick, the local economy is stable and durable, boasting transportation, distribution and retailing operations alongside high concentrations of educational, health care, financial, insurance, and information technology enterprises.

With a 9.7 per cent growth rate between 2006 and 2011, the City of Moncton (population: 70,000) is the fifth-fastest growing Census Metropolitan Area in the country. In fact, Westmorland County has typically attracted at least three times more people every year than any other county in New Brunswick.

Since 1990, the city has added more than 25,000 jobs to its workforce. The annual unemployment rate is one of the lowest in the Atlantic region and substantially below the national average. Home sales in 2011 reached the fourthhighest level in Moncton’s history. Yet, with an average house price of $158,561 in 2011, the city remains one of the most affordable housing markets in the country. The total value of building permits issued in 2011 reached $184 million, the second highest level on record. Add to this, retail sales reached $2.1 billion in 2011, 17 per cent higher than the Canadian Cities’ average.

The story is much the same in the City of Dieppe. In less than 30 years, its population (23,310) has more than quadrupled (up by more than 25 per cent since 2006, alone). Across the Petitcodiac River, the Town of Riverview has enjoyed a 20 per cent hike in its population (19,128) since 1986. Like Moncton, both of these communities display all the metrics of eminently livable, dynamic centres: a booming, yet still affordable, housing market, comparatively low unemployment rates, comparatively high participation rates, robust retail sectors and plentiful recreational and cultural amenities.

So, then, if things are going swimmingly for the tri-city area – at least compared with many other communities in New Brunswick, where the unemployment rate among young people routinely tops 18 per cent – why engage in another urgent conversation? Why re-brand Enterprise Greater Moncton, the entity that emerged to coordinate the urban area’s resuscitation following the Great Railway Calamity of 1989, as 3+ Corporation? And, while we’re asking questions, why hire Champoux as its fearless, new leader?

The answers have something to do with laurels and a civic predisposition, in this neck of the woods, to avoid resting on them at all cost. That’s certainly a frame of mind with which this transplanted Quebecer is personally and intimately acquainted.

Born and raised in the Eastern Townships, Champoux attended university, he insists, not for the familiar reasons of career advancement, money, influence and power. “I’m a social guy,” he says. “My friends did MBAs and wanted to get rich. For me, it was always about improving the prosperity and the quality of life of a community.”

With this in mind, perhaps, he attended the University of Sherbrooke and Eastern Connecticut State University, from which he earned a BA in economics. The program also allowed him to complete three, four-month work terms for Industry Canada and Health Canada in Ottawa. While there, he functioned as a junior economist specifically responsible for analyzing the impact of Bill C-91.

“That was an Act to Amend the Patent Act and extend the protection of patents within the pharmaceutical industry,” he explains. “It was a big, big deal. It’s still referred to as the Champoux Report in Ottawa, even though it was written 25 years ago. It was my 15 minutes of fame. As recently as two years ago, I was still getting calls from the pharmaceutical industry about it.”

His achievement helped him land a job, following his graduation, as a market analyst for Heath Canada. “I enjoyed that,” he says. “I’ve always considered economics to be a social science. I’m a numbers guy, of course. But, for me it’s about making a difference and not standing still (with the status quo).”

In fact, if he wanted to advance, his bosses advised him to obtain a masters degree in health administration. So, off to the University of Montreal he went. During this sojourn, he met the woman who would become his wife. “Nathalie (Grant) was a student at the faculty of medicine where I was taking my masters degree,” he says. “Needless to say, I didn’t go back to Ottawa. I realized that this just wasn’t in the cards for me any longer. I stayed in Montreal and worked as a consultant in the health care sector.”

It amuses Champoux to know that were it not for his future wife, who hails from northern New Brunswick, he might never have moved to Moncton. It’s a story – the story of their arrival – he’s told dozens of times to demonstrate why, he thinks, the tricity area is a special place.

“When Nathalie wrote her national exams, which are required for all medical (interns) in Canada, she scored in the top one per cent in the country,” he begins. “She was older than many, she was 29, so she was more mature. She’s also female and bilingual. So, obviously, she was in really high demand from hospitals everywhere. I don’t know how many job offers she received, but they came from all over Canada and the United States.

“Then one Sunday night, she received a phone call from Dr. Hubert Dupuis from Dieppe (representing the George Dumont Hospital). He said, ‘We were looking at your file, and we are really interested in you.’ She said something along the lines of, ‘We have a long weekend ahead for Easter. Ben and I could drive to Moncton and then we could meet.’ He said, ‘No, no, no, that’s not how it works. Do you have plans for dinner on Thursday night?’ We said no. So he said, ‘Great, I’ll be at your house for dinner on Thursday night.’ So the guy flew to Montreal and spent the evening in our living room and even brought food.

“The point I’m trying to make is that no other communities in North America do that. Moncton does that. . . So, when we talk about the entrepreneurial spirit here, this can-do attitude, this outside-the-box thinking, this red-carpet approach…well, it’s all right here.”

Champoux experienced that up close and personal from the moment his feet touched Moncton’s Main Street. Having landed a job as a senior market analyst for Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC), while Grant undertook her twoyear residency at the Dumont, the young economist couldn’t believe the combination of friendliness and industriousness he witnessed everywhere. Most towns and cities have boatloads of one at the expense of the other. Not so, here. The spirit of ’89 still hung in the air like a certain tonic.

It was Champoux’s pleasure to sample that tonic at CMHC for the next seven years. In 2000, he and Grant married. She became a family physician. He represented the corporation’s interest in southeastern New Brunswick with vigor and alacrity. But, he says, there came a time when he knew he must reconsider his options. “I’m the kind of guy that needs to be challenged, he says. “When the job got too routine, I needed to move on.”

Seemingly out of nowhere, the City of Moncton came calling. In 2005, it was putting together its first formal economic development office, and it wanted Champoux to head up the division. He was elated. “By that time, I was addicted to the community. I did not relish the possibility of having to move away.”

Having hitched his professional star to the municipality as its new business development specialist, accountable to city manager Jacques Dube, he was responsible for planning and executing initiatives to attract investment and immigrants, enhancing the city’s downtown core, raising Moncton’s visibility nationally and internationally, and promoting the city’s prosperity and quality of life, which included targeted initiatives such as Moncton’s Intelligent City Agenda which, among other things, successfully expanded free Wifi in public spaces.

In 2012, Champoux moved on to become the city’s director of tourism and culture. In that role, he was responsible for enhancing the city’s prosperity and quality of life by managing its tourism strategy, arts and culture strategy, the Magnetic Hill zoo and the Moncton Museum.

“For all those years, I was just in heaven,” he says. “I’m passionate about economic development. I loved my job. I loved my team. I had a dream team in place with tourism and culture. I won’t lie…”

And yet, the call of the new sounded again. “Here’s the thing,” he says. “Once in a while, you have opportunities and you can’t ignore them. If you let them go, is it another 10, 15, 20 years before they come around again?”

Sitting at his desk with his back to the plate glass window that peers over downtown Moncton, Champoux takes extreme care to explain why the next 25 years should and will be different from the previous 25 for the tri-community area; and why there’s nothing wrong with that; indeed, why there’s everything right with it.

“We know we are not in crisis mode the way we were in 1989,” he says. “But, sometimes, when a community is at the top, and things are going well, it can be significantly more challenging to get people to realize we still need to work together. The battle is not yet over.”

That’s about as far as he will go responding to the suggestion that Greater Moncton has, of late, drifted ever closer to that bed of laurels on which it might rest its weary rump.

But clearly something was afoot last year when EGM announced a new governance pyramid – in which the three municipalities and, for the first time, members of the private sector share funding responsibilities as well as seats on the board of directors – with the separate economic leadership council at the top.

Then followed an economic summit in January – the first in 15 years – attended by more than 340 of the urban area’s business and political big shots. All of which culminated in a formal rebranding and repositioning. Et voila in June, 2014: 3+ Corporation with a specific three-part mandate to attract investment, encourage sector development and facilitate workforce availability.

In fact, Robert Irving sounded deadly serious about a timely, if nominally slight, course correction for the regional development corporation when he said in a statement at the grand unveiling of 3+: “Today is the beginning of a new journey where we are going to revitalize our region by coming together, overcoming any obstacle and meeting every challenge with confidence and can-do attitude. Regional cooperation is the way we will succeed. This new brand speaks to this. The three communities coming together. One region, one vision. That’s our plus!”

If anything it sounds like back to the future, with a twist.

“I think the name of the game in economic development has changed significantly,” Champoux says. “Many years ago in the late ’80s and early ’90s, when we had thousands and thousands of people unemployed, the name of the game was 100 per cent about investment attraction, and rightly so. You go ahead and hit the road and recruit businesses and you bring them here. Over the last five or 10 years, we have had close to full employment in Moncton. And contrary to 20 years ago, 80 to 90 per cent of new jobs are created from within. So it is now as much about attracting new talent as it is about new businesses. That applies to all cities in North America. It has become more about business retention and expansion.”

He adds: “The role now is a bit more focused than before. We clarified the mandate, we structured it in a way that is more in line with the directions now fed to us by the economic leadership council. That is more in line with what the tri-city’s respective municipal economic development departments are now doing.”

Of course, in none of this does Champoux want to come across as a man of prominence, an authority figure. In some respects, though, given his job description – the CEO of the municipal region’s leading, nay, only economic facilitator between public, private and institutional sectors – he doesn’t have much choice.

The true story of a community is always best read through a person’s eyes. And sometimes the eyes of a onetime stranger made ardent friend tell the best stories of all.

As for Champoux’s Montreal pals who once took bets – six months, a year, two years – on the maximum amount of time they believed their chum would survive his voluntary exile on the East Coast before scuttling back home, he’s got news for them: After 16 years, he is home.

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