Downtown revitalization only scratches economic turmoil

By Robert Washburn

With the presentation of the downtown improvement plans last week at the Cobourg’s revitalization committee’s open house, the group is well on its way to finalizing its reports and action plan for Cobourg council next month.

The implementation plan will likely outline a number of steps needed, calling on businesses, citizens and the town council to invest and be supportive. The public should expect a centerpiece project to act as a catalyst, providing much needed momentum and a symbolic launch to capture people’s imagination and inspire further investment and activity.

But, efforts to revitalize the downtown should be seen as only the first step in a larger discussion about the local economy. This takes nothing away from the current efforts. Cobourg must start somewhere. And, the downtown is a fine place to start. Yet, it can only be seen as a beginning and not as an end unto itself.

The woes facing the retail and service businesses in the downtown are only a sign of much larger economic issues, some unique to Cobourg. Yet others are representative of economic problems in Northumberland County and still other aspects reflective of difficulties facing rural Canada.

While that may seem a bit intimidating for some, it is not acceptable for Cobourg, or any other municipal council in Northumberland, to shy away any more. The vibrancy of the local economy must be given unparalleled scrutiny. New technologies and the increasing demands for regionalization have redefined the rural-urban relationships.

There is an uneven growth between cities and places near urban centres as compared to rural communities, like Port Hope and Cobourg. Areas like Northumberland are being left behind. Jobs, shopping, entertainment and attractions are only a few of the items now focused in big cities and the surrounding areas. Even services, like health care, are delivered over huge regions rather than rural-specific areas. Yes, you can get some treatments at Northumberland Hills, but specialized services are given in Oshawa, Peterborough and Belleville.

And, while provincial politicians love to come to town and profess their understanding for the need for jobs or economic growth, resources are funneled to more urbanized areas, hence increases take place away from rural communities. Meanwhile, these areas see improvements in the standards of living, while rural towns, villages and surrounding areas watch it fall.

Northumberland residents can no longer live on a steady diet of small companies and/or larger retailers coming to the area bringing part-time jobs or low wages or temporary opportunities, leaving the local economy stagnant or in decline.

One reason downtown business struggle is people’s inability to pay for their goods. If you are a senior on fixed income, inflation is slowly gutting your purchasing power. If you are underemployed with part-time work and no benefit, you are unable to buy goods.

If another indicator is needed, just as local fundraisers or sports teams how easy or difficult it is to raise money.

Also, it may be time to face the facts that Cobourg is no longer an economic engine as it once was. The local manufacturing sector lies in ruins compared to pre-NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement) levels. If any job growth takes place, it is usually in the retail or service sector, not in high paying unionized manufacturing jobs demanding specialized skills.

What is worse is the range of solutions being offered often involves fads, like green jobs or locally grown food or tourism, which offer minimal or temporary stimulus rather than seeking sound rural development policies. These distract from making hard decisions on the critical issues or facing the fact these are going to need long-term solutions, not short-term fixes.

Downtown revitalization is going on in Cobourg and Port Hope. For it to not be one of these trendy programs meant to distract rural communities and garner votes, the implementation plans need to contain clear outcomes, which can be measured, and detailed strategies to attain them.

Again, these must be viewed as small steps to a larger solution. Bold action is needed if Northumberland is truly going to transform. The critical question is: Who is going to lead this painful, yet vital, initiative?

It is time for business leaders, service clubs, organizations and institutions to step up and make the local economy priority one, placing a jackboot on the necks of municipal and provincial politicians to provide something more than platitudes or reports.

Both a municipal and provincial elections lie on the horizons. There is no better time to get their attention.

Originally appeared Aug. 14, 2013

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