Michael Fougere spent much of the 1980s and ’90s travelling the world trying to persuade entrepreneurs to start businesses in Saskatchewan. The government-run program he worked for was trying to reverse an alarming trend: young people were leaving the province for more prosperous locales, and taking economic opportunity with them.
Today, Saskatchewan is in the middle of its longest period of sustained growth in 80 years, driven by petroleum, potash and natural gas. The immigrants Mr. Fougere once courted are flocking there. So perhaps it is only appropriate that the amiable 56-year-old, who takes over as mayor of Regina Monday, is the man now charged with guiding the city of 200,000 as it transitions from sleepy provincial capital to booming big city. It’s also fitting that he’s a migrant himself.
A native of Cape Breton, Mr. Fougere moved away as a young man to study at the London School of Economics. He eventually married a Saskatchewan woman, settling in Regina. When his municipal property-tax bill jumped 50 per cent one year, he became an activist for tax reform. His advocacy led to a council seat in 1997.
When Mayor Pat Fiacco decided not to run for a fifth term this year, Mr. Fougere went for the top job.
“Anybody who looks at what Regina is doing, what Saskatchewan’s like, knows there’s tremendous potential. We’re not just wheat fields,” he told The Globe and Mail. “We’re a gifted province with natural resources. We have jobs, and people from all over the world coming here. It’s incredible what’s going on.”
But the boom has brought difficulties of its own. There is a severe shortage of housing, with the rental vacancy rate just 0.8 per cent. New infrastructure must be built, even as the city labours under a hefty pension deficit. The defining issue of the election, meanwhile, was a proposal to build a new $278-million stadium to replace aging Taylor Field, the home of the Saskatchewan Roughriders.
Shawn Fraser, elected to council last week, became well acquainted with the downside of prosperity at his previous job, running a non-profit organization. He frequently saw tenants who lost their apartments when landlords hiked rent by more than $500 in a single month, as well as families that had to uproot in search of affordable places to live.
“There are two types of poverty here. There’s traditional poverty, which is about addictions and trauma and health issues,” he said. “The new type of poverty is related to rental housing. We have a lot of people that wouldn’t otherwise be poor – they would be average, hard-working, middle-class people – who now scramble to find a place.”
He said the previous council tended to treat affordable housing as a provincial responsibility. While this is technically true, Mr. Fraser contends there are things the city can do, such as working with the University of Regina to build student housing, promoting tax credits and incentives for homeowners to construct secondary suites, and rewriting bylaws to make building such suites easier.
Housing hasn’t been the only place where the city has lagged, said Tina Beaudry-Mellor, a political-science instructor at the university. Regina also needs to improve its road network and build an expensive upgrade to the wastewater treatment plant.
“The next city council over the next four years is going to have a very challenging juggling act,” said Ms. Beaudry-Mellor, who unsuccessfully sought office in the recent election. “To maintain a competitive tax environment, upgrade the infrastructure needs over the long term and do all this in fairly short order so that we can sustain the boom.”
In this context, some questioned the need for a new stadium. Besides taking precious money from municipal coffers, Mr. Fraser pointed to the possibility such a large project will add fuel to an already hot economy, driving up labour and material costs. Most economic analyses show stadium construction does nothing to generate new wealth; it only displaces money that would otherwise be spent elsewhere.
But Mr. Fougere champions the project as both a point of civic pride and a locus for urban development. Part of the plan is to build a mixed-use, inner-city neighbourhood next to the new sports facility, on land that previously belonged to the railway. Once the old stadium is demolished, meanwhile, the site will eventually be used for affordable housing.
And he has no illusions about the challenges facing his city.
“We have to plan,” he says. “As a municipal politician, I don’t want to see that problem, where we have such a constraint to growth that we miss opportunities. We have to make sure we have that infrastructure down.”
Mr. Fougere promises to convene a summit with the province, federal government and community organizations to craft a strategy to deal with the city’s housing shortage. He also hopes to reach a deal with Ottawa on long-term infrastructure funding by 2014.
Regina has already taken steps in the right direction. The city has imposed regulations to limit suburban sprawl. Since compact urban areas are less expensive to service than low-density subdivisions, the city should save money on infrastructure costs and lessen traffic congestion. Meanwhile, downtown’s one-way streets have been converted to two-ways and the city built a new plaza, with the aim of encouraging pedestrian activity and livening up the core.
On top of the economic and planning shifts, Regina has been swept up in the political sea-change transforming Saskatchewan. In the civic election, pro-business candidates beat out left-leaning ones in nearly every race, including the mayoralty, said John Murney, a political consultant and blogger.
“Regina has been a government town for most of its existence, if not all of it,” he said. “And I think we’re now going to see a trend, that began under Pat Fiacco, where we become more business-friendly. Whether that’s good or bad is in the eye of the beholder.”
Despite the work ahead, or perhaps because of it, Mr. Fougere sounds an optimistic note. And if you consider his previous line of work, it’s not hard to see why.
“We have the kind of problems I like to deal with, which are problems of opportunity, and how do we seize those,” he says. “That’s a good place to be.”