I had an interesting chat the other day with my friend, Michael Zwaagstra, as we were visiting their place in Steinbach, Man. In addition to being a published author on the subject of education and a school teacher, Michael is also a second term city councillor for the City of Steinbach.
For those not familiar with it, Steinbach is about 45 minutes from Winnipeg, close enough to be a bedroom community. However, it is also a thriving community in its own right with several prominent trucking companies, a window manufacturer and a biotech firm. The community also has made a niche for itself in the automobile sales area, competing substantially on prices compared to Winnipeg dealers.
It is growing like a weed, except that's the wrong terminology. It's not a noxious plant, but a well-tended flower in the Manitoba Bible Belt.
Steinbach is a predominately Mennonite community, one with a strong work ethic, overflowing churches and a low crime rate. These are not mutually exclusive.
It is also close in size to the communities I have lived in most of my life -Yorkton, North Battleford and Estevan. Since I was the city hall reporter in North Battleford for five years, invariably we end up talking civic politics — from both sides of the council table.
This month we had reciprocal visits to Estevan and Steinbach, and took long walks in the evening through the respective downtowns. I told him a story I had heard about how an oil sector company had been seeking to expand its operation in Estevan, but had not been making much headway with city hall. Apparently Weyburn caught wind of this, and made a sweet offer. The company then supposedly took this offer to Estevan and the city finally got their act in gear, lest the operation move down the road to a competing city.
I related how for Saskatchewan cities, it is standard practice from municipal governments to offer several years of no municipal taxes in return for new development, either commercial, industrial or residential. Cities trip all over themselves offering different, yet incredibly similar, incentive packages. Councils fret constantly over the effectiveness, or lack thereof, of their incentives.
What sort of incentives do you offer? I asked Michael.
"None," he said flatly. "We offer the lowest taxes in Manitoba. That is our incentive." Wow.
I noted almost every story I write for Pipeline News talks about the housing shortage in southeast Saskatchewan, and how it is the limiting factor for growth of individual companies and of the region as a whole.
I also told him of the great difficulty Estevan has had over the years in attracting residential developers, despite one of the most vibrant economies in the province. Finally one is going to be developing several hundred lots on the northwest corner of the city. As of the time of his visit, they had not yet scratched dirt. With the oilpatch now going great guns with drier weather and high oil prices, Estevan could use 1,000 new housing units tomorrow, never mind a few hundred. Most of that demand is for rental apartments, something precious few developers want to build in Saskatchewan without government subsidies.
This is not the case in Steinbach, Michael said. Yes, there is strong housing demand, but developers come there freely, without demanding subsidies. They certainly get none from the City of Steinbach. And they not only build house subdivisions, but rental apartments as well.
Again, what is the incentive? "We have the lowest taxes in Manitoba."
There are a few small tradeoffs, I noticed. Most Steinbach streets I saw had sidewalks on only one side, and are narrow by Saskatchewan standards. Many streets have parking on only one side. There is no city-owned greenhouse operated year-round providing flowers for the beautiful flower baskets hanging from light standards, such as North Battleford has. "We let the private sector provide that," Michael said.
In this tale of many cities, it's interesting to see how a community that does not have a huge pool of oil under it or coal beside it is able to keep up with the demands of a growing vibrant economy. Perhaps some civic leaders might want to take notice.