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If Not This, Then What?

One trope in development discussions is that St. John’s needs investment. When a developer offers to put millions of dollars into building something St. John’s, the argument goes: Even if the building isn’t perfect, isn’t it better than nothing? Won’t its construction generate much-needed jobs and tax revenue?

Sometimes. I think it’s important to think through the consequences of saying No a bit more carefully than that. Let me give three examples.

First, imagine a large technology company is planning to build a new Atlantic Canada office either here or in Halifax. If we turn them down or put roadblocks in their way, our loss is Halifax’s gain.

Second, a developer from away plans to build a hotel downtown. From my perspective, downtown St. John’s attracts a certain number of tourists and visitors each year. New hotels don’t really increase that number; they just compete for a share of the business. As long as there’s demand for more rooms, they will be built. So if we turn down one bad proposal, there’s likely to be a better proposal next year.

Third, another developer plans to build a dense infill development in centre-city. If we turn them down, what is likely to happen? Other housing units will likely be built to meet the demand, but they could be built anywhere in the greater St. John’s area. Probably they will contribute to sprawl.

Economic consequences cannot be the only factor in development decisions, but they are a significant one, and as a result they are worth analyzing. The consequences of our actions reverberate unimaginably into the future. We have to take responsibility for those actions, even if we can’t imagine them.