How can we save the economy in Northeast New Brunswick? Findings from the 2020 Northern Vision Nord Symposium | UNB

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JDI Roundtable on Manufacturing Competitiveness in New Brunswick

How can we save the economy in Northeast New Brunswick?

Findings from the 2020 Northern Vision Nord Symposium

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By Sarah McRae

The 2020 Northern Vision Nord Symposium, held March 13, 2020 at Danny’s Inn and Conference Center in Beresford, was an opportunity for regional stakeholders to connect, share their perspectives, and brainstorm ideas with the goal of identifying actions that could positively impact the Northern New Brunswick economy. Bringing together a coalition of stakeholders from diverse sectors, the event was organized around the goal of identifying a list of recommendations that could influence future policymaking and reinvigorate the region’s economy.

From the mid-20th century, Northern NB has been fueled economically by its rich natural resources and a strong industrial presence. In particular, the Northeast region comprised of Restigouche, Gloucester, and Northumberland counties has relied on a strong manufacturing sector to drive its economy, as well natural resource extraction and processing. However, these industries have been suffering in recent years. This was apparent with the closure in 2013 of Brunswick Mine’s Bathurst-area operation due to the exhaustion of underground deposits and the more recent, related closing of the Glencore smelter in November 2019, resulting in the loss of 420 jobs in Belledune, a small village of 1,400 people. Compared to the province as a whole, the Northeast region also faces pressing demographic challenges and labour shortages. As the region’s young working-age population continues to migrate elsewhere in search of more opportunities, Northern NB’s median age continues to creep upward.

The Symposium was meant to be a first step towards arriving at a regional game plan. Both public and private sector stakeholders were represented, coming from a wide variety of fields, sectors, and interests, including government, economic development agencies, business incubators and accelerators, natural resource agencies and industries, manufacturing, and many others.

The event was structured to focus on five key theme areas:

Attendees shared their visions for what Northern NB could look like in the medium- to long-term, if the right policy measures are put in place. These visions were not always aligned – notably, while many stakeholders were focused on building from existing strengths, such as manufacturing and extraction/processing of natural resources, still others were intent on diversifying the economy by building new strengths in sectors such as technology and tourism.

After analyzing the trends that emerged among the responses to questions posed to individuals and groups that day, we identified three policy areas or themes that represent the most significant clusters of recommendations proposed by Symposium participants. These are:

  • Theme 1 - Northern NB Economic Zone
  • Theme 2 - The “Northern Tiger”: Re-branding Northern NB
  • Theme 3 - Investments in transportation and education infrastructure

Theme 1: Northern NB Economic Zone

Several of the recommendations coming out of the workshop sessions could be leveraged together to create a special Northern NB economic zone focused on creating incentives and supports to grow manufacturing and R&D in the region, enabling the develop and export of value-added products.

Recommendations included fiscal policies surrounding taxes and tariffs with the potential to attract investment and give local industries a boost. Another popular proposal was a free trade zone (sometimes referred to as a “foreign trade zone”), which is a designated area within a country where foreign companies can import materials, manufacture goods and export products without being limited by the usual rules and taxes. These zones are often organized around major points of entry, such as airports or shipping ports, making the Port of Belledune a likely candidate. The suggestion of a “tax-free zone” gets at the same idea. Tax free zones are designated areas in which specified businesses received special tax incentives. They can be used in conjunction with “enterprise zones,” which are specific regions in which government encourages business growth through tax relief and financial concessions.

Theme 2: The “Northern Tiger”: Re-branding Northern NB

Groups identified a need for increased regional collaboration and a shared vision for how to create a stronger future for the Northern NB economy. This could involve increased partnerships between different stakeholder groups, including businesses and different levels of government. This collaboration could be as simple as sharing ideas and best practices, or it could involve setting common strategic goals so more resources can be funneled in that direction. One recommendation was a communications plan to “tell the North’s story” as a way of attracting investment and keeping the region top of mind for government.

Theme 3: Investing in transportation and education

To create sustainable economic growth in the North, Symposium participants identified education and transportation infrastructure as key areas for investment.

Some suggested more concerted efforts towards promoting entrepreneurship in the region, especially through education and services targeted towards youth. Goals for these efforts would include “selling” youth on the region and avoiding further out-migration, as well as encouraging the formation of first-generation entrepreneurs. This outreach would likely involve promoting existing programs, such as education and training opportunities, as well as supports for new businesses. In the longer term, efforts would be directed toward promoting entrepreneurship through changes to educational curriculum and creating more opportunities for education and training regionally.

Another theme that emerged was facilitating improved trade capacity by improving existing infrastructure and developing an integrated transportation strategy that includes air, roads, port, and rail. The goal of these investments would be to make the region more accessible and attractive to industries by removing barriers or restrictions on the transportation of goods.

Moving forward

The sessions described in this report represent a first step toward achieving the goal of sustainable regional economic growth for the North. Further consultation from local business leaders and industry representatives is needed, after which the next step will be to produce tangible action plans to present to government. The organizers of the event (the Transition Adjustment Committee chaired by Denis Caron of the Belledune Port Authority) have identified additional milestones that must be met to identify specific policy recommendations and present an actionable strategic plan to help Northern NB return to prosperity.

In light of the COVID-19 pandemic situation that began to shut down New Brunswick’s economy just days after the symposium was held, such plans are more important than ever. In the coming months, the Northern Vision committee, as well as Northern NB stakeholders and business owners, will have an opportunity to present a vision for re-invigorating the Northern economy during a time when governments at all levels are investigating how to emerge from the COVID-19 recession. Planners and policymakers will be looking for answers to ensure the “new normal” we face when this pandemic is over includes positive changes that could see the province transition into a period of transformation and growth. Hopefully, if the initial work discussed in this report continues, this new reality will be one that leverages Northern resources, assets, and expertise.

View the full report

July 28, 2020

Dr. Sarah McRae is a postdoctoral fellow at the University of New Brunswick and a member of the JDI Roundtable research team.

The JDI Roundtable on Manufacturing Competitiveness in New Brunswick is an independent research program made possible through the generosity of J.D. Irving, Ltd. The funding supports arms-length research conducted at UNB.

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