“Time to face reality.”
“The truth is we have a crisis.”
“We have to change the way we think.”
Strong words from Don Mills, chairman and CEO of Corporate Research Associates, who says the region needs to take action to address serious economic and demographic trends.
Addressing the Yarmouth and Area Chamber of Commerce during its annual general meeting, Mills spoke of the region’s population challenges – including the need to retain young people and get more immigrants – and he called for building an entrepreneurial environment, saying there needs to be private-sector growth if the region is to address some of the issues it faces. He spoke too of the importance of an export-oriented economy.
Mills is considered one of Canada’s leading public opinion and market research professionals.
Among other things, Mills said places like Yarmouth should try to maximize their potential as urban economic hubs, where people come to work, access services and the like.
People who live in rural villages don’t want to move – and they shouldn’t have to, Mills said – but they should be willing to commute for employment and for services. And many apparently are willing to do so, he said. Indeed, Mills said his company’s research shows 65 km is considered a reasonable distance to drive to get to work.
Mills cited health care as an area where urban-centred zones could come into play. He pointed to an auditor-general’s report from a couple of years ago that questioned the sustainability of Nova Scotia’s hospital system, given the number of facilities there are.
“We have 32 hospitals in Nova Scotia,” Mills said, suggesting that a better approach may be to “enhance the service within a reasonable commute.” At this end of the province, for example, if Yarmouth had more medical services to offer – with regard to cancer, for instance, Mills said – it would reduce the need for people from the tri-counties to travel to Halifax for treatment.
“This is only one example of the challenges we face,” Mills said.
He acknowledged that hard decisions will be required and he said it has to be a tradeoff, so that if people lose something or see a reduction in their immediate area, they gain by having a broader range of services within their own region, again resulting in fewer trips to the city.
Population – the need for more people – was a key point of Mills’ chamber address and he called on local governments to talk about and take action on immigration.
“You can’t lose another 2,000 (people) in the next five years,” he said, referring to the number by which the population of the tri-counties fell between 2011 and 2016.
Of the need for immigration to help bring the numbers back up, Mills said immigrants create more jobs than they take, contrary to what some people might think. New people bring a strong worth ethic and are good for the economy, he said.
And it’s in the private sector where economic growth has to happen, he said. He cited figures showing that while the Canadian average for people working in the public sector is one in five, the figure for Nova Scotia is about one in four.
Governments can’t create jobs, he said, but they can help create an environment where the private sector can. Entrepreneurship is important, he said.
Responding to a question about municipal amalgamation, Mills said the present structure of municipal government in Nova Scotia is expensive and it would be good to see communities come together to address this.
Referring to some of the key challenges facing Nova Scotia and Atlantic Canada as a whole, Mills said it’s important to get the message out, hence his talks to chambers of commerce and other groups.
“I’ve spoken to anyone who’ll listen to me,” he said. “This is my passion for this region, for this province.”