Saint John has been enjoying an upswell of economic momentum. Some of its efforts have been made under the surface, quiet and inconspicuous, similar to a whale as it glides through the ocean. Others have been more flamboyant, like the gentle giant as it crests above the waves.
There’s been a cultural and economic shift. New energy from young entrepreneurs, confidence from global organizations, and investments by big players, such as Salesforce, Radian 6, Genesis and Innovatia, are all signs of a vibrant and prosperous Saint John.
Despite a recent global downturn, Saint John has been seeing a number of exciting projects. Atlantic Potash Corporation is in the development approval and due diligence process to build a state-of-the-art, $350-million fertilizer facility, expected to provide 570 full-time jobs and employ 1,200 people during the construction phase, in the city’s McAllister Industrial Park.
The new Spruce Lake Barge Facility on the city’s west side, when completed, will enable oversized metal manufactured pieces, which are too large to be taken to their destination by road or rail, to be transported by waterways. The project opens significant new business opportunities for fabricators in Atlantic Canada and along the U.S. eastern seaboard, valued at more than $100 billion, according to Saint John Industrial Parks.
There has been significant growth in the services sectors. TD Insurance, for instance, is continually expanding, adding stability to that sector.
There’s also been an inf lux in development of high-end residential properties. Historica Properties has repurposed eight heritage buildings into modern, mixed-use spaces, and a city landmark, The Gothic Arches, formerly a prestigious church, is slated to be renovated into condominiums by a Toronto-based developer.
And with the potential for Saint John to play a major role in the national energy infrastructure there’s even more buzz. In November 2012, Federal Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver stated that the Government of Canada would like to see a pipeline built that would carry crude oil from the western provinces to the east, and to have refineries, like the one in Saint John, processing the crude, expanding their operations and creating more jobs.
In February 2013, New Brunswick’s Premier David Alward visited Alberta and talks with Premier Alison Redford resulted in Alberta’s support for a westeast pipeline. In addition, former Premier Frank McKenna, while speaking at a February 2013 Board of Trade luncheon in Saint John, extoled the virtues of the pipeline and the opportunities for shale gas development in New Brunswick.
Such projects are putting Saint John at the top of the pack as the place to do business.
Investors are expressing their confidence. According to the Saint John Development Corporation, approximately $700 million was spent in the city on major projects–everything from harbour cleanup to improvements at East Point Shopping Centre–in the last 18 months.
And more than 40 per cent of that was from private investors, says Kent MacIntyre, general manager of the organization that also operates as Saint John Waterfront Development.
“This is showing that others have confidence in our city and our development focus, that we’re a viable and promising place to invest.”
Increasingly, the investments are in the service and technology sectors. According to Plan SJ, the City’s new municipal plan, employment patterns have shifted toward service-sector employment: 77.5 per cent of the workforce.
Saint John has lost its blue-collar-city status. Industry, however, is a significant part of its fabric.
“We like to call it white collar with blue stitching,” says Steve Carson, CEO of Enterprise Saint John. “Our foundation is blue collar. We’re built on that, but we’re also making strides in the technology and innovation sectors.”
More recently, Enterprise Saint John spearheaded the effort to have Saint John recognized by the Intelligent Community Forum. The Intelligent Community Forum honours communities that demonstrate the “world’s best practices in creating competitive local economies and vibrant societies in today’s hypercompetitive global economy.”
In 2011, an application was submitted to the global organization that sifts through about 400 applicants annually. After a rigorous examination process, including area visits, the group shortlisted the communities to seven. In early 2012, Saint John was honoured to be named one of The Top 7 Intelligent Communities of the Year.
“The designation brought renewed hope to the region,” says Carson. “We got our communities thinking of ourselves Industry and lifestyle nicely co-exist. differently.”
That Top 7 designation brought a new way of thinking that is part of the new confidence and action in Saint John.
True Growth 2.0, a collaborative strategy led by the mayors of the region’s five communities (Grand Bay-Westfield, Quispamsis, Rothesay, St. Martins and Saint John), focuses on four components: the economy, social development, culture and environment.
By working on all four themes, the initiative, propelled by 130 volunteers in 11 working groups, is expected to further build a strong, attractive region for investment and economic growth.
Yves Bourgeois, of the University of New Brunswick’s Urban & Community Studies Institute, is a member of True Growth 2.0’s Urban Development working group. He says it’s a key blueprint for the city’s future, and many pieces must be in place for lasting growth.
Transportation, venture capital and new immigrant infrastructure are key factors.
The plan also celebrates and builds upon a strong social and knowledgeable network. The people of Saint John are among its strengths, he says.
“Saint John has always been driven by entrepreneurs,” Bourgeois says. “In terms of social capital, I’ve rarely seen this level of social engagement.”
The city is unique in that it also has a good cross-section of talent, he adds. “We are not just a cluster of similarly-minded individuals. We have developed a mix of professionals.” Together, he says, they form a strong collaborative for innovation.
The city is doing many things right, he says. It’s building around and upon natural attractions, such as the waterfront.
The former Coast Guard site, a six-acre parcel of land next to the Market Square, Saint John Trade and Convention Centre and Hilton Hotel, is prime waterfront space for mixed-use development, MacIntyre says.
He expects an announcement regarding the development on the site, known as Fundy Quay, will be made in the coming months.
The corporation is now setting its sights on the property near Harbour Station, including Long Wharf. Again, the group that acts as a catalyst for development for the City of Saint John, sees the space as prime for mixed development.
“Ideally, a development of this nature will have a mix of retail, commercial/office, residential and hospitality, with retail on the first f loor, the next few floors would have a commercial office component and the upper floors would be residential,” MacIntyre says.
Housing is a significant component of urban planning, he adds. “We’re all about density and maximizing the available property. People love being close to uptown, walking distance to amenities, the shops, their workplace, the restaurants,” he says.
“We’re fortunate to have a port and city that recognizes this need for mixed development,” MacIntyre says. He stresses the value of an active, prosperous uptown.
While the suburbs are integral–they support the cities and region–he says they thrive when there is a strong, central core.
And such a hub of activity is necessary for the province as well. “A strong Saint John makes a strong southwestern New Brunswick,” MacIntyre says.
Industries prospering in outlying areas, such as aquaculture, forestry and mining, require Saint John for port, air and rail infrastructure as well as services for workers.
Investors see Saint John as an attractive option. It has the significant elements sought when selecting a base to set up shop: industrial parks, a developed central core, a highly capable, knowledgeable workforce, available space on the waterfront, and a strong population base.
Companies look for a return on investment, and whether they can attain or attract employees. They question healthcare, education offerings and lifestyle. They also want to ensure there’s a population that will support its growth and success, MacIntyre says.
The City of Saint John has weathered, better than many, the global recession and the f lat growth thereafter. That’s good news for investors, says Bill MacAvoy, the Managing Director of Cushman Wakefield Atlantic. “From a real estate fundamentals perspective, Saint John offers opportunity, as the current f leet of commercial and multi-residential buildings needs to be supplemented by new product, in high demand locations with modern systems,” he says. “The six major centres in Atlantic Canada each have nuances but collectively offer a different economic baseline when compared to other North American and global markets. The key word is stability. The somewhat conservative nature of our region is a welcome change for investors from markets with wild swings or political and disaster risks. In a portfolio of investments, Atlantic Canada and Saint John offer an attractive risk/reward dynamic”.
Professional sports organizations, such as the Saint John Sea Dogs and Saint John Mill Rats, a stable of quality restaurants, live theatre, recreational facilities, green spaces and vibrant francophone and immigrant communities sell the city.
With two cruise ship terminals uptown and the recent designation of the region as a UNESCO Stonehammer Geopark site (2,500 square kilometres across southern New Brunswick), more outsiders will be visiting the city, enjoying the offerings and learning about the city’s potential.
Such visits are opportunities, says Bourgeois. “Learning to capitalize on these visits will help us develop …. If we latch onto benefits, there could be even more potential.
“It’s about momentum.”