Strategy is key to keeping towns viable, audience told
Memorial University business professor Tom Cooper has spent several years examining the need for municipalities to engage in strategic risk management. He suggests itâs worthwhile for towns to consider risk, regardless of the situation theyâre in.
Memorial University business professor Tom Cooper had plenty to say Wednesday about the need for municipalities to manage strategic risks. His presentation was a part of Engage Memorial Fest, held at the St. Johnâs Arts and Culture Centre. â Photo by Andrew Robinson/The Telegram
âYou donât want to see your community disappearing. You donât want to see people leaving your community or deciding, âIâdonât want to live here because itâs becoming a retirement community,ââ he said during a presentation that was part of Engage Memorial Fest, held Wednesday at the
St. Johnâs Arts and Culture Centre.
âRegardless of whether youâre at 500, 485 or 555 (residents), youâre still going to have limited resources in the future, and what are we going to do about it?â
Both the Harris Centre and Municipalities Newfoundland and Labrador have funded research work undertaken by Cooper. Heâs read plenty of municipal plans, looked at how municipalities in other countries have managed risk and assessed the infrastructure risk facing communities in this province.
On the latter matter, Cooper said municipalities are not in a good place.
âWe donât have the tax base to fund a lot of our infrastructure,â he said, adding that a struggling economy makes it harder for municipalities to manage water and sewer services and town infrastructure.
Economic, environmental and operational risks tend to be the most common ones. In the case of infrastructure, Cooper said some towns may have buildings that were once vital to the community but are now underutilized.
âDo we need all the buildings that are in our communities? Do we need to keep on retaining those buildings in our communities? Is that going to be a risk to communities for their revenue bases, to actually try and keep these buildings â which were for the most part built when the communities may have been two or three times the amount (of people)?â
Towns may consider selling such properties or using them in new ways that could generate outside interest in the community and tourism opportunities.
As far as examples go, Cooper says Asbestos, Que., has managed its infrastructure in a manner suitable to its changing needs. It tore down a town hall that was bigger than it needed and made strategic investments in roads and parks â decisions designed to attract people to the community.
âHow communities, how municipalities and how ourselves decide strategically to manage (risk) is an important policy question, and itâs an important question for both now and for the future of Newfoundland and Labrador.â
Cooper favours regional co-operation when it comes to strategic risk management in smaller communities. He said it would be hard for some communities to justify engaging in that activity on their own.
On the planning side, Cooper said towns should not treat municipal plans as documents to cut-and-paste from other jurisdictions simply in order to quality for Infrastructure Canadaâs Gas Tax Fund. Instead, they should be treated seriously. He also recommends having an external party work on the plan.
Risk does not have to be looked at negatively, in Cooperâs view. He suggests some forms of risk can present opportunities for municipalities so long as they are well managed.
âUltimately, what youâre trying to find any time youâre managing risk is optimal risk-taking. You donât want to be in paralysis by analysis, and at the same time, you donât want to be taking too many risks.â
The provincial governmentâs role in helping municipalities manage risk is obvious in light of the millions of dollars it provides them to assist with infrastructure needs.
That relationship is somewhat in flux, as it is attempting to create a new fiscal arrangement with larger municipalities.
âI would say if (the province) can start to look at the risks and not just the nature of, âOh, is this a good thing or a bad thing,â (but) look at whatâs the risk for the long-term viability of the province and the communities in which they are deciding to invest or not to invest.â