Canadian politicians love to talk about supporting small business and nowhere is that more true than in some of our largest cities. But what does it actually mean?
The Globe and Mail asked the mayors of Canada’s four largest cities about their their challenges, big wins and why small business matters to them and the cities they represent.
Mayor John Tory says his goal is to create a welcoming environment for business, which would include the more obvious things like keeping taxes at a “reasonable level” and “trying to minimize the over-encumbrance of regulation,” but he says it goes beyond that.
Supporting small business in Toronto also means getting traffic moving and providing adequate public transit. Although gridlock costs some small businesses directly, he says it can also limit businesses ability to hire the people they need, if the traffic and transport situation makes it too inconvenient for them to get to work.
Education isn’t a municipal responsibility, Mr. Tory says he won’t be shy about lobbying the province on the issue, especially when it comes to programs to support the city’s innovation economy. “It’s something you’re going to hear from me on.”
Mr. Tory, who was sworn-in as mayor on Dec. 2, says his top priority is to “attract overall jobs and investment to Toronto.” When it comes to attracting “foreign direct investment to Canada,” Mr. Tory says, “we’re punching below our weight.”
More direct priorities are also on the table. “We’re going to continue with the program that shifts the tax burden ever so slightly from business to property,” he says.
Another priority is creating a single point of contact for municipal business permits and services. Right now, business owners “sometimes have to go to seven different offices,” he says, putting government “in their way and not for any specific reason.”
Change is a slow process, however, and he plans to take it one step at a time. “You can’t focus on everything at once,” he says. But some of the challenges facing small business go beyond the mayors office.
Nationwide, he says small business are struggling to fund their growth into medium-sized business. “It’s still much more difficult than it should be in this country to find capital,” he says.
“Small business drives Vancouver’s economy,” says Mayor Gregor Robertson. “We’ve built a very diverse small business economy here that’s resilient and outpacing two-fold the growth of our provincial economy.”
Driving that success is the city’s startup community, which Mr. Robertson says is seeing unprecedented success. “We’re attracting companies and venture capital like never before,” Mr. Robertson says.
Another success story has been the city’s focus on increasing ‘green’ jobs, part of a plan to turn Vancouver into the most environmentally-friendly city in the world, he says. Between 2010 and 2013, the number of jobs in ‘green’ fields grew by 19 per cent, he says.
Another big small business win for the city has been “our support for construction and development,” Mr. Robertson says. “We’ve had three record years of building.” While that directly helps small businesses and subcontractors in the construction industry, he says the focus on affordable housing also provides indirect support to small business. “If people are saddled with a big mortgage,” he says, “it’s harder to start a company.”
Vancouver’s high housing prices have also made it harder for businesses to recruit employees. “Middle income families are having a hard time finding affordable housing,” he says. “They have to move away from their workplace.”
While he’s trying to keep people in the city, he’s also open to working with neighbouring municipalities. “We work very co-operatively across metro Vancouver,” Mr. Robertson says.
Part of that was the introduction of a mobile business license in fall 2013. It allows contractors, caterers and other businesses that aren’t tied to a specific location to work in several municipalities without the need for multiple licenses.
Before entering politics Mr. Robertson was an entrepreneur himself, co-founding juice maker Happy Planet. He says his small business background is “essential to understanding our business community and how the city can help small business.”
“Canadians are great entrepreneurs, the success of this country has been largely a result of our entrepreneurial spirit,” Mr. Robertson says. “We need to foster that in cities and schools and through actions of government.”
Alberta’s largest city might be known for its oil industry and corporate headquarters, but that’s not how Mayor Naheed Nenshi sees it.
“The core business success in Calgary is not that there are some carbon atoms somewhere in the ground nearby,” Mr. Nenshi says. In fact, the oil sands are actually quite far away. “You have to fly there,” he says. “Those head offices could be anywhere.” Instead, he says, “what we’ve created here is a true meritocracy.”
It’s not just big business, he says Calgary is “home of the largest number of startups per capita” in Canada. “People are always shocked about that.” But they shouldn’t be, he says.
Cutting red tape has been a priority for Mr. Nenshi and he takes pride in being recognized for it by the Canadian Federation of Independent Business. His goal is to make “it much easier for small businesses to do business with the city,” he says.
That means getting city staff to think “I am successful as a city employees, if the small business I’m working with is successful,” Mr. Nenshi says.
He’s also moving forward on a plan to gradually consolidate the city’s standalone business tax with its non-residential property tax. “It’s an administrative advantage,” he says. He also calls the business tax unfair, saying “it was based more on assets than income.”
But small business in Calgary do have some challenges. “We’re absolutely facing a labour shortage,” he says, “regardless of the price of oil.” Because small businesses can’t necessarily compete on wages, the shortage hits them even harder.
The answer to that, Mr. Nenshi says, attracting people to the city and keeping them there through a high quality of life. “Great public spaces and great public transit are actually hard-nosed economic development strategies,” he says.
Multiple attempts were made to schedule an interview with Montreal Mayor Denis Coderre. While the mayor’s office said he was interested in speaking for this article, Mr. Coderre was ultimately not made available.
In e-mailed statement, the mayor’s press attaché Catherine Maurice wrote in French that the city of Montreal supports small business and startups through six local economic development centres which “provide front-line services to budding entrepreneurs and existing businesses.” Those services include technical advice and funding.
Known more commonly in Quebec by their French name, the Centres Locaux de Développement, are non-profit corporations funded by the province and overseen by the Mayor of Montreal in his role as Mayor of the Agglomeration of Montreal, a regional government that provides certain services to across the Island of Montreal, including de-merged suburbs that are not part of the city itself.
According to Ms. Maurice, the CLDs supported 2,591 entrepreneurs and distributed over $2.7-million in grants and loans during the 2013-2014 fiscal year.
Ms. Maurice says the city also supports tech startups through its economic development office.
Among the projects supported are startup hub Notman House, co-working space GamePlay Space and the Montreal International Startup Festival.