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How to spend Halifax's economy into gear

Jobs hunt: Thousands of locals could be put to work with the proper federal economic stimulus plan



There's plenty of work that needs doing in Halifax, and plenty of people ready to do it, says Halifax MP Megan Leslie. And the federal government should put those people to work as part of an overall economic stimulus package.

Leslie takes me on a four-hour tour of her district to demonstrate the kinds of "at-the-ready" infrastructure projects that, if funded, would almost immediately employ thousands of workers, giving a tremendous boost to the local economy.

We visit empty lots where affordable housing projects can be built, shipyard workers anticipating contracts for new naval vessels, childcare providers making the economic and employment case for meeting unmet daycare needs, a university president with a wish list for improved building maintenance and a fish processor who explains that he can't sell all the fish he can catch for lack of a marketing campaign.

Along the way we discuss still other employment opportunities, like an expanded energy efficiency retrofit program for low-income homeowners. And we talk about the underlying philosophy of what should be in the stimulus package that prime minister Stephen Harper will deliver to parliament Wednesday.

"What I'm worried about is he'll bring just tax cuts, and not [a stimulus package] that gives us the biggest bang for our buck," says Leslie. "And I think that's symptomatic of an ideology that says government is bad."

The problem with tax cuts, she conti-nues, is they're not the best way to boost the economy.

"Tax cuts work because we're going to have more money in our pocket, and we're going to spend more, in theory, and that means there's going to be more of a demand for goods, so we have to produce more goods---everybody wins, right? But a billion dollars in tax cuts works out to about $720 million in increased GDP and about 7,000 jobs.

The same billion dollars invested in infrastructure results in $1.78 billion in GDP, and 18,000 jobs," she says, citing a report issued by the economic forecasting firm Infometrica.

Moreover, there's fear that we are about to enter a deflationary period, where people delay purchases in anticipation of lower prices in the future, a mentality that becomes reinforced as prices actually drop: A consumer thinks, "Hey, the price of a car dropped a thousand dollars last month; maybe it'll drop a thousand more next month." And when people put off purchasing decisions, the industrial machine falters. Nobel prize-winning economist Paul Krugman recently wrote in the New York Times that such a downward spiral "looks an awful lot like the beginning of a second Great Depression."

"One problem with tax cuts is there's no guarantee people will spend," agrees Leslie. "Or, they'll go to Bermuda."

An infrastructure-based stimulus package, however, can be directed into specific local projects that bring the biggest return for the overall economy, counteracting deflationary pressures. Krugman calls for "large scale deficit spending by the government," a sentiment echoed by the World Bank, which suggests that national governments need to spend at least two percent of their Gross National Product to lift the global economy out of recession.

"Two percent in Canada is between $30 and $40 billion dollars," says Leslie, and she'd like to see that come entirely from deficit spending, and all of it this year. The Harper government is reportedly considering a $30 billion stimulus plan, but it's as yet unknown if that figure is for multiple years or if it includes tax cuts.

How, exactly, could some of that money be spent in Halifax? Our first stop is to an affordable housing project on Creighton Street by Creighton/Gerrish Development, an agency founded by Dalhousie prof Grant Wanzel. The first three stages of the development, 36 units, have been completed and occupied.

"Several of the home buyers actually lived in social housing, and moved from social housing into home ownership," says Wanzel. The program targets people with a lifetime connection to the neighbourhood, and some of the new homeowners have a family income as low as $30,000. The new homeowners build equity, and that becomes the foundation of wealth and therefore fuels the broader economy.

Wanzel has complete plans and city approval to build the last stage of the project---48 condo units at the former Sobeys lot on Gottingen Street---but doesn't have the last half-million dollars to bring the project to fruition. He praises the province and city for the help he's received so far, but says it may be a while before it can come together.

"I would not want to wait another six or eight months for the affordable housing program to come down, but if we have to do that, we have to do it."

But if the project was funded by the stimulus package, work could start as soon as Wanzel can line up buyers. "That's contractors and carpenters, working right away," says Leslie.

From there, we go to the Halifax Shipyard and speak with Karl Risser, union president at the yard.

There are unfunded plans for two "joint supply" naval ships, four Arctic patrol vessels and 12 smaller coastal patrol vessels, says Risser. "All we have to do is get that work on the ground. We start building ships, all of a sudden we can say to our workers, 'We're not going to employ you for three months, lay you off for a month, employ you for three months, lay you off for a month.'"

Many of the laid-off went to find temporary work in Alberta to hold them over the lean times, but that work too has dried up. Presently, there are 400 to 500 people employed at the yard, but contracts for just two Arctic Patrol vessels would bring the yard to full capacity, with 1,000 workers, says Risser.

At Saint Mary's University, we meet with president Colin Dodds, who shows us around the McNally building. Dodds explains that there is more than $23 million worth of deferred maintenance on the building---projects on the books but unfunded. Were the money available, that work could start immediately, employing contractors and construction tradespeople, and better positioning the university for recruitment of students.

We also stop at the YWCA childcare centre on Barrington and talk with Tanis Crosby, the executive director. "Less than 11 percent of children under the age of 12 in this province have access to licensed childcare, and 74 percent of women are in the workforce," she says. "So how do you put an economy to work when the mothers can't?"

The Liberal-NDP coalition accord contained a commitment to short-term funding for childcare, says Leslie. It didn't spell out long-term commitments, but would have helped with one-time funding for new buildings.

Lastly, we stop at Sambro Fisheries, where Manager Donnie Hart discusses the many challenges of running the operation, especially after the ground fisheries collapsed in the early '90s. There's no easy solution, says Hart, but a well-funded marketing campaign pushing locally sourced fish would go a long way toward propping up prices.

Leslie won't make predictions about what Harper will bring in the budget Wednesday, but it's clear she'd like more on-the-ground spending than has been offered so far. "We can put Halifax to work," she says.


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