Thunder Bay’s Business Climate
We are facing unprecedented challenges in 2020 due to the Coronavirus Pandemic. Canada’s GDP fell by 13% in the first half of the year and Thunder Bay has not been spared from the fallout. The Chamber has been partnering with the North Superior Workforce Planning Board, the Community Economic Development Commission and the Northern Policy Institute to undertake regular local business surveys since April to gauge the local impacts. In the August survey, 32 percent of respondents said they have experienced a loss of more than 50 percent of their revenues while 30 percent have lost over one hundred thousand dollars in revenues to date. Many businesses have reduced staff, reduced hours, or closed their operations temporarily, while 22 percent say that the impacts may put them out of business.
One of the key themes identified by the consultants report is the lack of a coherent and systemic effort to modernize and digitize City operations at all levels – ranging from the lack of an over-arching digital strategy to outdated IT systems and overlapping Human Resource databases. These issues are exacerbated by COVID-19 as the necessity of providing contactless service becomes more pressing. Let me take a few minutes to outline some examples of the current non-digital realities of dealing with City Hall that we have heard from our Members:
- Construction industry representatives and building owners spoke of the time consuming and wasteful requirement to provide paper-based copies of building designs in an age where the industry operates in a digital format. Instead of an email or shared drive to collaborate between builders and the city’s various departments to meet requirements, architects, engineers, construction firms and property owners drive across town to drop-off or pick-up copies of required documents. It is our understanding that both Windsor and London have been very successful in transitioning to a fully online system and may be a useful resource for Thunder Bay.
- Similarly, scheduling of building inspectors are currently made by phone rather than through an online booking system such as that implemented in Sudbury.
- Tenants in city buildings are unable to set-up automatic bank withdrawals for the payment of monthly rent and are required to mail a cheque or phone in a credit card number every month. In the age of digital payments and auto withdrawals, this inefficient system is not acceptable.
- Parking meters require coins or parking cards that can only be purchased in person and paying a parking ticket cannot be completed online whereas this seems to be fairly standard for cities of our size including in Sudbury and Sault Ste Marie.
- Water bills and property tax bills are sent out by mail or email. There is currently no option for online access to payment history, year to date statements, payment due dates, or the ability to pay and manage the accounts online similar to the online services available for TBaytel customers. Keeping track of both water and property tax details when you manage one business is difficult and that challenge is multiplied exponentially for those who have multiple businesses or locations.
- Water meter readings require manual submissions by every property owner. While the option of electronic reminders has been an improvement, the time involved to manually read and submit water readings is significant. Automatic meters would be much efficient for both customers and the city.
- Parents outlined the frustration of attempting to book and/or pay for children’s activities or childcare.
We also heard success stories from our Members who have achieved significant savings from digitizing vehicular tracking on their fleets. Their investment in technology identified patterns of vehicle idling, wasted fuel consumption, non-sanctioned after-hours use, and a huge range of metrics from which they moved to cut costs and improve operational efficiencies. Digitizing city operations will require an upfront investment of time and money that should start with customer-facing services including Building & Planning, Water, Tax Collections & Parking. We believe the return on investment through improved customer service, enhanced efficiency, collection of data on metrics and performance measures, and the elimination of wasteful practices demonstrates leadership and positions Thunder Bay for the next decade of prosperity.
Strategic Plan for Facilities
The other area we wish to highlight is Facilities. The consultant’s report articulates the lack of a strategic masterplan for City owned facilities. This deficit is tied to the lack of an overall strategic plan to guide decision making. Decisions on individual facilities or buildings are being made in isolation with no apparent guiding philosophy. The Chamber would like to see our political leadership articulate a clear strategy for our publicly owned buildings and facilities. Is the City in the business of being a commercial property landlord? Is there a threshold of recreational facilities that should be provided in every neighbourhood or on a per capita population basis? Does the City intend to become a major sports & recreation hub in Ontario? What is the principle which supports City investments in daycare and elder care? What is the philosophy that should determine what kinds of buildings and facilities the City should publicly run and maintain at tax-payer expense?
The Chamber has listened to its members on this issue and while many have specific ideas about what should be funded or not, all are of the consensus that there is a fundamental lack of a clear vision or strategic plan. The big question which members articulated is “What the City is trying to be?” The business community would like to see leadership on this issue as it affects the kinds of economic opportunities and quality of life choices that build a true community. We need Council to propose a vision for what the City should look like and a roadmap to get there.
A clear strategic plan for City owned facilities likely means divestment and cost cutting at some facilities and significant investments in others, but without a clear plan ahead of us, the tough decisions tend to become an exercise in political lobbying and emotion-based campaigning that leads to waste, inefficiency and a tax burden that is unsustainable for our business community. One example of a strategic plan for facilities can be found in the City of Calgary whose Corporate Facility Planning and Delivery Framework is designed to “support increased efficiencies, partnership, innovation and investment considerations into the planning and delivery of City facilities, while providing greater value for Calgarians.” The goals of the Calgary framework guide all facility decisions and are centered around the facility portfolio’s core role of “supporting the efficient and effective delivery of services to citizens”.