Back from selling Vancouver to London businesses and investors, Mayor Gregor Robertson says the city will see the economic payoffs from the 2012 Olympics in the months to come.
“There’s a lot of capital in London and a keen interest in the green industry,” said the mayor, who formed part of the Vancouver delegation to what has become an Olympics sideshow: business networking. Vancouver’s was the largest delegation, with seven people and a $100,000 budget, of all the Canadian cities.
The formal deals are expected to trickle in through announcements in the next six months, said Lee Malleau, the CEO of the Vancouver Economic Commission, which organized the trip.
But, besides the deals, the London trip is the latest manifestation of a very different economic-development strategy the mayor has brought to Vancouver.
For two decades before he arrived, the commission (previously named the Vancouver Economic Development Commission) was a mysterious appendage to city-hall operations with a big budget but rarely heard of by the public. It operated like a traditional economic-development office, doing a lot of research, printing brochures and giving business information to any company that called.
Mr. Robertson has taken that commission and its budget – $2.6-million in 2011, $2.9-million in 2012 – and used it to steer a new brand of economic development: going out into the world and hunting down business opportunities. Since the Vision council took control in 2008, the commission has put much more energy into specific areas like high-tech, animation and gaming, food production and “green” jobs.
That’s in spite of the challenge of defining green jobs or the fact that food production has limited possibilities within City of Vancouver boundaries.
The commission was restructured 18 months ago, making the mayor of Vancouver the chair.
“It’s not typical because we’re very targeted and entrepreneurial. My goal is to make sure Vancouver is known worldwide,” said Mr. Robertson, one of the co-founders of the organic-juice company Happy Planet. “This is where my entrepreneurial background can have real benefit for the city. I consider myself the top salesperson for Vancouver.”
A former board member said there was some apprehension about what Vision would do with the commission, but that the business community generally sees an improvement.
“There’s been more legitimate and real interest in economic development than there had been previously,” said architect Michael Heeney of Bing Thom Architects.
A more aggressive approach to outreach had already been adopted in the lead-up to the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, driven by former CEO Phil Heard. But Mr. Robertson accelerated that, championing economic-development possibilities relentlessly during the Games.
Six months later, he went off to the Shanghai World Expo with commission staff and Councillor Raymond Louie, a venture that took $75,000 from the commission’s budget and $45,000 from the city-hall treasury. Twenty-two businesses paid their own way. (Questions were raised about whether that money might have been better used to follow up with contacts made during the Olympics.)
The London trip, equally expensive, included representatives of 30 Vancouver companies.
“London companies want to access the North American and Asian markets, and Vancouver’s a strategic location for both. We had tons of interest from digital-media because of the quality of talent here,” said Mr. Robertson, who says Vancouver is considered the number three city, after Los Angeles and London, in the animation and visual-effects industry.
To Mr. Robertson, the visit meant that a business like the Vancouver water-treatment company, Ostara, and its innovative technology, could connect directly with executives from Thames Water for discussions about joint ventures in the European Union. More than 100 businesses came to Vancouver’s two-day show at Canada House, and city officials visited another two dozen London operations that invited them in.
And he’s sure that that is going to make a difference. Not immediately, not tomorrow. But some day.