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MONCTON, NB-April 27, 2012-GEORGE DONOVAN1- George Donovan, CEO of Gogii Games, poses for a photo at his office in Moncton. (The Globe and Mail)
MONCTON, NB-April 27, 2012-GEORGE DONOVAN1- George Donovan, CEO of Gogii Games, poses for a photo at his office in Moncton. (The Globe and Mail)

REVIVAL

Moncton on top after surviving recession, government austerity Add to ...

When Jean-Daniel Drapeau gave up on Montreal as a place to do business, the 31-year-old Canadiens fanatic figured the only thing he’d really miss was his beloved hockey team. Still, if he needed his Habs fix, he knew he could easily hop on a plane and be in the big city in 75 minutes.

Four years ago, Mr. Drapeau and his wife decided to relocate to Moncton, a city that has been aggressively positioning itself as the entrepreneurial and transportation hub of the Maritimes. The business he launched, GSCM Innovative Solutions Inc., focuses on e-procurement and online invoicing, and now has clients in Montreal, Toronto, Calgary and Nevada.

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“I can’t tell you of any service that was in Montreal that we can’t get here,” he says.

The Greater Moncton Area – with a population of 138,000, which includes the francophone city of Dieppe and the town of Riverview – has been a success story of late in a have-not province mostly devoid of natural resources and major employers. In last month’s budget, Premier David Alward announced that 4,500 jobs would be cut from the civil service to help tackle New Brunswick’s $183-million deficit.

As jobs disappear from the public sector, mostly from attrition, big government towns like Fredericton are feeling the pinch. But Moncton – where nearly half of the businesses have fewer than five employees (GSCM has three in Moncton) and no single industry makes up more than 15 per cent of the work force – has largely weathered the twin storms of recession and government austerity. According to John Thompson, chief executive of Enterprise Greater Moncton, the area’s development agency, 5,000 new jobs have been created in the past four years.

That said, Moncton knows what it’s like to be down on its luck. In the 1980s, it was in danger of becoming a ghost town after losing its main employers; CN closed its rail yard, the Eaton’s catalogue centre shut down, as did CFB Moncton.

“I remember that time very well,” recalls Moncton Mayor George LeBlanc. “People were hanging yellow ribbons on posts. I had been working in another city.… I came back and thought, ‘Oh boy, I wonder if this is a good time.’ ”

Things started to turn around in the early 1990s, when Liberal Premier Frank McKenna decided to build a call centre industry in Moncton – leveraging the city’s bilingual work force, and attracting the likes of RBC, Exxon Mobil and UPS. Now, with the telecommunications and transportation infrastructure that was built in its wake, Moncton has become an attractive place for a variety of businesses, including high tech, consulting and game developing.

George Donovan, 40, relocated to Moncton 13 years ago, having lived and worked in West Hollywood and New York. The owner of Gogii Games Corp., an international interactive games developer – which just acquired the world wide rights to Archie comics video games – says that staring into the abyss after the loss of the main industries forced the city to reinvent itself.

“What came from that was innovation, work ethic and strength of value – and I think Moncton had that,” says Mr. Donovan, who employs nearly 40 people in Gogii’s Moncton office. He also credits a corporate infrastructure and a passionate bilingual work force that “wanted to build something rather than let it die.”

Moncton civic leaders like to say the city punches above its weight and point to the $26-million airport runway expansion to beef up its air cargo business and attract more international flights; plans for a $100-million new arena and entertainment centre; a stadium big enough to host CFL pre-season games; and then, of course, the summer concerts on Magnetic Hill, including last summer’s U2 concert that attracted some 75,000 people.

Enterprise Greater Moncton’s John Thompson says he uses the summer concerts as a way of trying to create some awareness of the community when he travels to China, Korea and Vietnam in search of potential immigrants. Doing so has become crucial as Moncton’s work force continues to age, with an over-50 population growing faster than any other age group.

Mr. Thompson has also been trying to recruit landed immigrants from Toronto, people who have already gone through all of the lengthy processing and are not satisfied with their “Canadian experience.” His team went into the GTA, pitching a better, easier and more accessible quality of life in Moncton – promoting the fact that you can buy a three-bedroom bungalow for under $160,000, that you go home for lunch each day, and that work commutes often take mere minutes.

That point was brought into stark relief for George Donovan while in Manhattan for business this week. Mr. Donovan sat for 45 minutes in traffic as he tried to get out of the city. “I wouldn’t spend 45 minutes a week in my car driving all over town,” he says. “Those are the things you appreciate.”

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