The Equity Advantage

Colette Murphy is the Chief Executive Officer of the Atkinson Foundation. Colette made these remarks as a participant in a discussion among leading anchor institutions hosted by the City of Greater Sudbury, the Sudbury Community Foundation, the Greater Sudbury Chamber of Commerce, and Evergreen, a national charitable organization that inspires action to build sustainable cities. It took place on Monday, September 16, 2016.

Thank you, Mayor Bigger, for your invitation to Sudbury. This is my first visit.  My initial impressions were formed by the stories of a close family friend, a no nonsense Franco-Ontarian social worker who was born and raised north of here more than 80 years ago.  Sudbury is halfway between her home and the high school she attended in Ottawa. She helped me recognize the complexities of northern life, and grasp the diversity and sheer size of this province. The moral of her stories always had to do with people depending on each other, working together to deal with the limits of infrastructure and services and to make the most of their collective ingenuity, talent and resources. 

Back then as it is today, Northern Ontarians knew they were greater together. The path from a railway company village to a frontier mining town and then to becoming a city and region had unavoidable ups and downs. But you honed your skills for collaboration and innovation along this route as well as your resilience – or, what your Community Foundation calls the ability to “get started and start over”.  

And so it is your vision for 2025 that brings me here today.

“Through collaborative effort and innovative action, our community will attract the people, services, enterprises and investments needed to generate 10,000 net new jobs by 2025, achieving an unmatched quality of place, lifestyle and economic prosperity.”

I’m here to learn how the Atkinson Foundation can help and to share some of what we’ve been learning about the role of anchor institutions in realizing visions like yours throughout North America and around the world.  

I’ve been asked to introduce you to some strategies that are helping the economies of mid-sized cities become more equitable and inclusive.  

They’re known as anchor strategies because they are designed and delivered by institutions that are firmly moored in their communities, institutions like yours: different levels of government, hospitals, universities and colleges, faith-based, cultural and philanthropic organizations.

Anchor strategies mobilize resources, deliberately and strategically, to improve the lives and livelihoods people who are not benefiting from traditional approaches to economic development. Anchor strategists are not necessarily motivated by the charity impulse.  Generally, they simply want better results for their institutions and communities, and to realize their missions more fully.  What distinguishes them from the leading private wealth builders in town is that they are stewards of public funds — and committed to building community wealth and sharing prosperity — by creating decent work for everyone.

This community wealth building approach to economic development was pioneered in the United States and has been promoted globally by an organization called The Democracy Collaborative — the author of the chart on your tables. From the multiplier effect of institutional “buy local” or “social procurement” strategies that keeps money circulating in a community, to workforce development to eliminate barriers to training, these economic strategies complement more traditional ones and they leverage the collaborative power of anchor institutions to make cities stronger, fairer and healthier by every measure.

As you know, the traditional approach to economic development is based on a zero sum game in which some people win and others lose. The community wealth building approach is based on a positive sum game in which no one wins at someone else’s expense. It’s gaining traction in mid-sized cities because the old approach, simply put, is creating too few winners.

The people leading this effort in the US and UK are a lot like you. They hold elected office. They are public servants. They manage social services. They run businesses. They are philanthropists and academics. They are education and health care administrators. They are also community organizers and activists many of whom have lived experience of economic hardship.

They share a commitment to using their individual and collective economic power in ways that promise benefits for everyone. They see deep divisions in their cities along race, gender and income lines — and know these conditions do not attract investment or talent.  The consequences of unbridled income and wealth inequality can, in fact, repel people and make a city less competitive.

According to KPMG’s 2014 Magnetic Cities report, “Cities are like magnets. Just as magnets can either attract or repel, so can cities.”  A city with a strong magnetic pull draws in new residents, visitors and business investment. People, ideas and money mix and ferment in magnet cities, like hops and grain in a beer barrel. Magnet cities bubble over with new ideas that help to establish new businesses, social networks and infrastructure. Restaurants, shops and bars blossom.  Visitors appear and spend money. Big business is lured in by the buzz and new operations are established in the never-ending battle for talent.  New jobs are created.  The city’s economy grows,”  

Equally, cities can also repel, the report goes on to explain.  “A city with magnetic push casts off residents and businesses as people pack their bags and move to cities with greater magnetic pull. As the population declines, businesses shut down or move their operations elsewhere. The downtown urban core becomes blighted as restaurants and hotels close down. The city’s economy shrinks.”

“Just like magnets, cities seem to have only two states: positive or negative. Cities tend to either grow or shrink. There is no such thing as a neutral magnet; nor is there a neutral city. “

KPMG makes a convincing case that cities must attract a new generation of young and ambitious residents – young “wealth builders” they’re called in the report. They are key to reversing the cycle of decline and to kick starting a sluggish economy.

There is more than enough evidence, however, that young wealth builders cannot do it alone.  They’ll need partners like us.  “Community” wealth builders who are committed to getting everyone trained and ready for employment, to give everyone who has the entrepreneurial spirit and a solid business plan an opportunity to be part of our supply chains, and to give everyone the option of being part of an employee-owned business.  

Without us, our cities are at risk of becoming gated, not inclusive communities.  Our economies are at risk of leaving too many workers behind.  Our institutions are at risk of becoming alienated from a diverse group of voters and consumers who have been historically marginalized or disenfranchised.  And our country is at even greater risk of breaking into have and have not cities, instead of becoming a model of social solidarity and cohesion in an increasingly globalized economy.

Anchor strategies are, after all, about equity. They reduce poverty and reliance on social supports and remedial measures. They make good business sense and help your reach your stated goals. “To create 10,000 jobs by 2025, Greater Sudbury must also become:

  • A community where people, businesses and the public sector are united in their efforts to create employment 
  • A community that maximizes the value of its people, and that attracts, welcome and retains immigrants and newcomers with know-how and talent 
  • A community that is continuously focused on culture, sense of place and the environment as drivers of lifestyle quality 
  • A community that embraces diversity, innovation and entrepreneurship as key values that will create new economic opportunity.”

I’d like to propose that you add one more to your goals that has the potential to differentiate Sudbury from the pack – to give you an even “Greater Sudbury Advantage”: A community that is known for its equitable and inclusive economy.

We posted this image via social media a couple of months ago and it has outperformed everything else we’ve ever shared.

The first image shows that people are treated equally when it is assumed they will benefit from the same supports.  The second image shows that they are being treated equitably when they are given different supports to have equal access to the game.  In the third image, there is no need for supports because the cause of the inequity has been removed.

While this image effectively communicates the concepts of equality and equity, this one captures the reality in Ontario today.  It is in this reality that anchor institutions are developing their strategies — the playing field isn’t level and the gap between the wealthiest and the poorest is dramatic.

Since Atkinson made the commitment to supporting anchor strategies in 2014, we’ve discovered amazing leaders in cities like Cleveland and Toronto who are filling holes and taking down the fence that prevents some people from getting in the game – as a supplier of goods and services, or as an employee or apprentice. And they’re already seeing measurable signs of progress.

In Toronto, 18 anchor institutions have been getting together for over a year now to learn more about social procurement and other anchor strategies. Two institutions are leading now out front with several others getting ready to sign a pledges to develop anchor mission statements. The City of Toronto announced earlier this year a social procurement policy that set targets for community benefits as part of a comprehensive poverty reduction strategy. I’ve left a copy of a Mowat Centre brief on the strategy on your tables.

The University of Toronto-Scarborough has been meeting with representatives from the local community college, hospitals and others including the Toronto Zoo to compare master plans and look for ways to channel their combined economic power for greatest community benefit.

In Cleveland, 21 anchor institutions known as “The Greater University Circle Initiative” have been working in this way for many years now.  These anchors share a vision of “buying local, hiring local, living local and – together – thriving local.” Theirs is a bold strategy to stimulate reinvestment in seven low-income communities. The Toronto Star covered this success story back in March. You’ll find the story, Anchored in Hope, on your tables.

You can learn more about anchor strategies in these two cities and several others in Canada, US and the UK in a Mowat Centre report published jointly last year. Research on negotiating community benefits will be released very shortly. I’ll make sure these reports are sent to everyone who is here today.

Briefly, I’d like to share five observations from studying how anchor institutions make local economies work for more people.

First, there is an undeniable opportunity in front of them.  Anchor strategists see ways to “maximize what they spend.” The case for engagement is clear and presented by credible, trustworthy and knowledgeable community members who are open to the possibilities

Second, anchor institutions are organized to have an economic voice and impact. Skillful organizers who know how to use traditional and modern communication, leadership development, and collaboration tools are essential – inside and outside of anchor institutions.

Third, there are uncommon players are at the table. Unlikely activists from across disciplines and sectors are needed as much as long-time champions in economic development work. Recently, your Dr. Penny Sutcliffe spoke about the inextricable connection between the health of the workforce and the economy during a presentation to the Government of Ontario’s Changing Workplaces Review. She said: “A healthy workforce is essential for a healthy, productive economy.” Hospitals and health care practitioners are coming on strong as leaders in this field because they understand the profound impact of health inequities on community wealth.

Fourth, they’re connected to other communities that are rebuilding their economies. There are open sight lines across traditional geographic boundaries like you have with other mid-sized cities in Ontario.

Fifth, everyone shares in the risks, benefits and leadership.  No one is excluded from the conversation or decisions that affect him or her – everyone’s stake is respectfully acknowledged, everyone has a role to play.

There is no question that cities that are developing anchor strategies collaboratively are becoming more attractive, more magnetic and more prosperous places to live and work.

There are undeniable signs that this is the right moment to make community wealth building as important as private wealth building in local economic development strategies. In Ontario today, the government’s commitment to spend $130 B over the next ten years on public infrastructure is one such sign. The federal government’s pledge to invest $60 B is another.

Over the weekend, I read about the historic $49 million donation to Laurentian University’s Metal Earth Project –- congratulations to everyone involved for this game-changing investment. I also learned about the City of Greater Sudbury’s four priority infrastructure development projects – the Place des Arts, the Synergy Centre, the events centre, and the new main library and art gallery. These are exciting and challenging projects that provide a once-in-a-generation opportunity to invest resources in ways that:

Keep them from leaking out of the region;

  • Bust “opportunity monopolies” with community benefits agreements for more apprenticeships, training, jobs and other benefits for low-income residents and communities;
  • Identify local workforce development shortages and collaborate to create a “home grown” labour supply; and,
  • Invest in local businesses and social enterprises to diversify supply chains.

If you do, you will not only have delivered on your missions to provide citizens with the highest quality service and the highest possible value for their tax dollars. You will have set in motion a series of bets and returns that will deliver dividends to future generations. Your actions will communicate that your ambitions are big enough. Greater Sudbury’s Mount Everest expedition will move everyone forward even if the summit is ultimately beyond reach.

I look forward to your questions and to the continuation of this conversation. 

Photo Credit: P199 CC BY-SA 4.0