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Thursday, May 16, 2013

Cool is the key

The headline in The London Free Press read "Cool is the key." The headline writer may have been right. Michael Bloomberg, the mayor of New York City, wrote in the Financial Times:

Economists may not say it this way but the truth of the matter is: being cool counts. When people can find inspiration in a community that also offers great parks, safe streets and extensive mass transit, they vote with their feet.

Yet, when I read the NY mayor's list I feel something is missing — something that is assumed to be present: Jobs. With an unemployment rate pushing ten percent, London has more to worry about than park improvement. As long as Londoners insist on tackling the unemployment problem as if it is a unique, local problem and not a problem that is becoming endemic in much of the former manufacturing core of North America, the employment problem may prove intractable.

London planners like to say London is well placed. It is right on one of the busiest highways in North Amercia: 401. It is also linked to the States via 402 to Port Huron. London is surrounded with some of the best farmland in the country.

Still, London appears to be located just outside the positive Toronto sphere of influence. Kitchener-Waterloo seems to grab a little of the Toronto energy but the remaining energy dissipates before reaching London. There is no question that Windsor is out of the Toronto loop and as a result Windsor actually lost population in one recent annual survey. The loss of urban population is a problem many American Midwestern cities are contending with.

London is half way between Toronto and Windsor. This position could be a positive if played correctly, but played poorly London could become more like Windsor to the west and less like Kitchener-Waterloo to the east.

Set-up photo captures real mayor.
There's a reason that London has the highest unemployment numbers among all of Canada's big cities and part of that reason is its location. Another part of the reason may be London's mayor, Joe Fontana, and to the city council.

Fontana has always been a showman. Years ago, at the urging of the local paper, he put on red boxing gloves to pose illegally on some railroad tracks. Joe and the photographer trespassed in order to get the photo. Today, that photo of Fontana posing as something he isn't while breaking the law may be the best photo every taken of the man.

London's industrial sector has taken all the classic hits lately. On paper, London sounds like a classic Midwest city suffering from a serious decline in its manufacturing sector. Jobes are being lost to:

  • obsolete technologies
  • business mergers
  • outsourcing
  • automation
  • reshoring

When the EMD plant in London closed after some six decades in the city to be reshored back to the States, Fontana fell back on bluster. It was all showmanship, no leadership. That plant was moving toward closure almost from the moment it was sold to Greenbriar Equity Group LLC and Berkshire Partners LLC by the failing General Motors. The closing of the plant came as no surprise to those following such things. Fontana was not among them.

Fontana's shout-out to Prime Minister Stephen Harper, ordering the PM to "get his ass down" to London, was juvenile. Maybe what London needs right now is not more urban planning but more intelligence, more creativity, from the mayor and city council. Heck, I'd settle for a little more maturity and clear thinking.

When it comes to the all important ingredient, clearly neither the mayor nor the city council exhibit much cool.

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