Development: Experts say government must look toward future, not dwell on past

BATHURST – An economic development expert says a recent report that shows northern New Brunswick receives less provincial government funding than the south misrepresents the important challenges facing the region.

The report, commissioned by the francophone business group Conseil Économique du Nouveau-Brunswick, says that for every dollar per capita invested in the north between 1993-1994 and 2007-2008, the south has received $1.11.

David Campbell says those numbers are skewed by the high level of spending in the province’s capital region.

When funding for the Fredericton region is removed from the equation, investments in the north actually surpass those in the south, he says.

But Campbell, who presented a report on the north to the New Brunswick Business Council last August, says northern New Brunswick is suffering from a vicious cycle whereby the region’s residents get more employment insurance and more social assistance, while the “juicy economic development stimulating investments go to the south.”

According to the report, released last Friday in Beresford, northern New Brunswick received an average of $383.91 in capital spending per capita per year over the 15-year period, while the south received $425.87.

Northern New Brunswick is defined as Northumberland, Gloucester, Restigouche, Madawaska and Victoria counties.

Report author André Leclerc, an economics professor at Université de Moncton’s Edmundston campus, found in particular that less funding has been earmarked for northern highways and other transportation infrastructure.

Campbell says northern business leaders should push for government funding that encourages growth in emerging economic sectors, rather than focusing on infrastructure.

“Northern New Brunswick can carve out a new path,” he said in an e-mail.

“If it’s done right it will benefit the province as a whole, but the Conseil has got to stop advocating for a continuous strategy of doling out small grants to its membership and realize we need to get some big, anchor multinational firms back up there to help seed an economic revival.”

According to Campbell, the economic development funding problems in northern New Brunswick are comparable to those seen between the province as a whole and the federal government.

“It’s a long standing cycle,” he said. “New Brunswick gets equalization and employment insurance, Toronto gets billions in research and development and billions for the auto sector.”

Given northern New Brunswick’s relatively small population, Charles Cirtwill, president of the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies, says it’s understandable the region would receive less infrastructure funding.

“Investment in infrastructure makes sense, but at some point you have to recognize that maybe a two-lane road with passing lanes every once in a while is all you need,” Cirtwill said in an interview.

He says the best way to encourage growth in the struggling region is through incentives, such as tax-based incentives, rather than propping up companies.

“Government is atrocious at picking winners,” he said.

Campbell is concerned that the funding study will rekindle old regional divisions, rather than develop solutions for how to revive the north.

“If we were (to have) success in rejuvenating the economy of the north, it would generate significant new tax revenues for the province as a whole,” he said.

Anne Hébert, executive director of the Conseil Économique du Nouveau-Brunswick, says the main goal of the study was to set the facts straight.

“We’re not saying that because there was a difference in the amounts that it means we should take that 11 cents and put it in the north,” Hébert said in an interview.

She says the new three-year plan for northern New Brunswick, released in Bas-Caraquet last month, presents an opportunity to make strategic investments – rather than just balancing out spending haphazardly.

“If there are certain investments that are needed to make that plan work, we can say look, this is the chance to make investments in the north,” she said.