Who's Selling Our City?

Who's Selling Our City?

We need to double down on our efforts to attract people to come live in our city.

I would like to offer two statements that in my mind are backed by enough evidence previously reported in the pages of this magazine and elsewhere to trust as facts: Halifax is a wonderful place to live, and Halifax is in need of more people. It would seem that taken together there is an obvious path forward: let’s tell the world (or at least a handful of strategic markets) that Halifax is a great place to live, work and play. Surely, you say, that must be happening. 

It isn’t.

Let’s look to the organizations that would conceivably be responsible for marketing Halifax as a place for people to live. Perhaps the one that comes to mind first is Destination Halifax. However, Destination Halifax’s specific mandate is to “promote Halifax as a year-round destination of choice for business and leisure travelers.” Its sole focus is to attract a non-permanent flow of people to the city, primarily through promoting Halifax as a destination for conferences and conventions, and to a lesser degree by promoting Halifax as a tourism destination. This mandate makes sense for Destination Halifax, as the vast majority of its funding comes from a marketing levy charged to anyone who books a hotel room in Halifax, and the organization is partnered with the Hotel Association of Nova Scotia. Once people move to Halifax, they don’t book many hotel room nights here, so it’s all about booking large groups from away for multi-night stays.

The Halifax Partnership, our city’s economic development organization, could be another candidate with a mandate for attracting new residents. The organization counts population growth among its desired outcomes, but its focus in achieving this is local: help make Halifax a place where people want to live. The Partnership helms our city’s economic strategy, and it has operationalized the strategy through private and public partnerships and attracting private sector investment to our city. Its marketing efforts focus on generating and responding to investment leads, not people and families who are looking for a place to live with the quality of life that Halifax can offer. The Halifax Partnership does important work, but attracting new residential immigration is not currently part of that work to any meaningful degree.

The city itself outsources its destination marketing and economic development files to these two organizations and therefore plays no direct role in communicating our city to outside markets. As for Tourism Nova Scotia, not only does it not focus on getting people to move here, it also actively tries to move visitors outside of the city to other parts of the province as part of its strategy. There is no one left hitting for Halifax.

Halifax has been improving, and will continue to improve, in part because of the work of organizations like those discussed above, but the “build it and they will come” approach doesn’t seem to be working. Tourism numbers and hotel bookings in Halifax have been steadily improving in recent years, but population growth has been stagnant, and the little population growth we have seen has primarily come at the expense of smaller population centres in Nova Scotia and almost exclusively in the older age brackets. An outflow of young people who were born here, and our failure to attract new young people and families from elsewhere, are threatening to turn Halifax into a city with no children with an uncertain economic future.

What’s more is that there is evidence that a strategy premised on a theory that “people go where the jobs are,” is backwards. An annual study conducted by Area Development magazine has consistently found in recent years that the availability of skilled labour is a top consideration for modern day, skilled labour-based companies looking where to expand. Common sense would also seem to suggest that it is easier for businesses to try to hire talent from the local workforce than it is for them to try to scoop talent from an outside market. Attracting people to live in a city is a job for the city, not businesses that are considering locating there. Clearly it is important to have jobs and an attractive city for people when they get here, but focusing on city building at the exclusion of direct efforts to attract immigration is only half of the equation.

It isn’t that marketing a city as a place to live is a novel idea. Other communities have been doing it, and doing it well, for years. In 2007, the city of Lyon, France, launched its “Only Lyon” initiative. Still active today, the initiative that includes several out-of-market marketing programs with a mandate to “make Lyon better known, generate appreciation for Lyon and bring people to Lyon,” was created as a partnership between government, private and institutional sectors in the region. It has been credited with boosting Lyon’s international recognition and its immigration numbers. Canadian cities have also engaged in this type of messaging, attempting to lure people from other parts of the country — and farther — by touting the livability and opportunities those cities can provide.

With Halifax currently in the midst of a development boom, there will soon be a large availability of both residential and commercial space for people and companies to fill. The time has come for all sectors of our community — from government to private — to develop a sharp focus on attracting people from other markets to consider Halifax as a place to live, raise a family and invest. Attracting people to live here is the most pressing challenge for our city right now, and with so much good to say about Halifax, it makes no sense to remain silent.

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