Do you want to live in a sticky place? A town that can keep doctors, painters, writers, nurses and teachers?
Where your taxes stay with the schools, hospitals and colleges close to your home? A town that businesses don’t want to leave? A community that your kids don’t want to leave?
“Sticky Places in Slippery Space” is the catchy title of a 1996 paper by economic geographer Ann Markusen.
Markusen was trying to explain “why certain places manage to anchor productive activity while others do not.”
The problem is that economic space is getting more slippery all the time. With free trade, information technology, globalization and capital mobility, companies can go anywhere. Why should they stay in your town?
Stickiness is a major issue in Northern Ontario. As an economist I am asked: “What can we do keep our kids in the North? How can we retain businesses? How do we attrac businesses that will stay? Will fair wage legislation keep money in the North? Will health care investments keep people in the North? How do we keep doctors (or nurses, or radiologists, or teachers)?”. In other words, how do we make northern communities stickier?
On May 9, Premier Ernie Eves announced his stickiness plan for the North. All of Northern Ontario will be designated as the province’s first-ever tax incentive zone. This designation is for 10 years, effective Jan. 1, 2004.
The theory is that money makes good glue.
Tax holidays and financial incentives do work, although one study in the U.S. found that they can cost half a million dollars for each job they attract. Subsidies like this aren’t bad if we can get someone else to pay. Queen’s Park is willing, so why shouldn’t southern taxpayers bribe companies to set up in the North? And 10 years is long enough for some to get attached to the North.
Ideally, industries generate their own glue. For over a century economists and geographers have been talking about how industrial districts develop. Why do clusters of firms and workers in certain special places attract more firms and workers? Understanding this natural agglomeration process might help us develop similar clusters in Northern Ontario.
We can also look for small, cheap, clever ways to make the North stickier. That’s what the Kirkland Lake town council did.
In 1999 council passed a remarkably sneaky resolution. It asked the minister of education to guarantee that at least 20 per cent of school textbooks be filled with local examples. “Local” meant plants or poets that can be seen within one-hour’s drive of the school. Council suggested the rule should apply for courses in literature, geography, history, geology, botany and biology. These are the subjects that show us the world around us.
Local content is good for children. They learn better when they study the flowers they see by the road and
the poets they might meet in the malls. Local content is good for the community. A community can only develop culturally when its children understand and value the people and places around them.
Local content is also good for the economy. This is what made the Kirkland Lake resolutions so very clever.
The school system is the largest cultural industry in Canada and the most important cultural industry in our communities. Schools spend a lot of money on textbooks. The money leaves the region. If just a fraction of the textbooks dealt with strictly local content, local authors would have access to the market.
It is important to make ourselves some room in this market. In the information age the fastest growing sector is the cultural sector. School content comes from outside the region, it is controlled outside the region, and the profits develop the talents of people who live outside the region.
The Kirkland Lake council found an almost costless strategy to make children, money, and talent stick in the North. It will improve education and create jobs. Will other communities follow their example? Will they convince the provincial government?
Dr. David Robinson, PhD, is an associate professor of economics at Laurentian University. He works with the Institute for Northern Research and Development. He can be reached by e-mail, firstname.lastname@example.org
(This column is dedicated to Kirkland Lake’s ex-mayor, Richard Denton)