09/17/2013 12:18 EDT | Updated 11/17/2013 05:12 EST

New Brunswick: Avoiding Defeatism in Economic Development

There seems to be a prevalent trend in media and political commentary about New Brunswick; that our province is falling behind, in decline.

There are no doubt serious challenges facing New Brunswick, including recent unemployment numbers that are the highest in the country, and a recent increase in outmigration rates.

However, it is not all bad news. For all the challenges facing our province, there are bright spots. New Brunswick does offer quality-of-life advantages that can be an attraction for newcomers -- relatively low housing costs, smaller cities and communities that offer an alternative to larger urban centres, and close proximity to nature and outdoor activities. Economic development expert Richard Florida, speaking in Anchorage Alaska, highlighted the appeal of outdoor activities and proximity to natural environments for many young professionals and entrepreneurs.

The 2011 Canadian census showed some good news for the province, with New Brunswick's three largest cities - Fredericton, Moncton, and Saint John - posting population growth. Saint John is especially worth noting as the 2006-2011 time frame represented the first period of population growth for the city in four decades - a testament to the increasing popularity of dense mixed-use urban neighbourhoods like Uptown which appeal to young professionals, as well as entrepreneurial start-ups where loft-style downtown facilities are increasingly popular.

Fredericton and Moncton offer a rich scene of start-ups, including high-tech companies, all of which bring new opportunities for meaningful careers.

The Pond-Deshpande Centre at UNB plays a crucial role building links between the university and business, while organizations like 21inc offer important avenues for innovative young people.

It is worth noting that while urban centres in the province are growing, suburban municipalities are among the fastest growing.

Between 2006 and 2011, Dieppe grew by 25.6 per cent to 23,310 people and Quispamsis grew by 17.4 per cent to a population of 17,886. Dieppe is the fourth largest municipality in the province with Quispamsis just edging out Miramichi for fifth place.

This shows that our province is not only urbanizing, but also suburbanizing, with municipalities like Quispamsis and Dieppe becoming significant entities in their own right, hopefully warranting greater attention and scrutiny of municipal policies in these places.

A growing population brings the issue of managing growth, highlighting the need to promote sustainable urban growth which emphasizes walkability over generic box-store style sprawl that induces greater car dependence and increases infrastructure costs such as maintaining roads.

It is important to build links between New Brunswick's cities and rural areas, to promote rural and natural areas as sites for recreation and tourism and to promote local agriculture. On agriculture, ways to promote a unique New Brunswick brand -- emphasizing healthy and natural food for example -- should be promoted.

Companies such as Covered Bridge Chips in Hartland provide an example of successful marketing and branding of local food. In Ontario, the University of Guelph has established a partnership to promote agricultural development in the Niagara Region. Could the same not be done here?

Places such as the Nashwaak River Valley benefit from proximity to Fredericton, with the scenery of the region being an attraction for cottagers and for people who want to live in the country but be near an urban centre.

A town like Woodstock -- which has a sizeable and dense downtown -- holds potential, to promote local businesses, tourism, and has potential for start-ups. Places like Grand Manan Island offer natural beauty and outdoor activities -- including The Anchorage Provincial Park -- and could offer potential especially if promoted through the right avenues, including possibly attracting tourists from New York City and Boston who visit Maine to come a bit further to Charlotte County.

In all this, we have to be cognizant that economic development in New Brunswick has been uneven and that northern New Brunswick and many rural areas and small communities are losing population. While the larger urban regions benefit from immigration and migration from outside the province, they are gaining population as well from a migration of people from northern and rural New Brunswick.

The population numbers cited above are from 2011, when New Brunswick overall posted population growth, with unemployment and outmigration higher more recently, it is hoped that the 2016 census won't ultimately yield a reversal of some of the province's earlier positive trends.

Nonetheless, our province has had successes. We should not be despondent. The key is how these successes can be expanded upon and applied across the province. Government policy needs to be geared towards this end, fostering an entrepreneurial environment (including municipal urban planning policies prioritizing the types of downtown environments popular with start-ups), promoting accessible and affordable post-secondary-education, helping sectors such as agriculture become sustainable in the 21st century, promoting population growth (including promoting New Brunswick as a destination for those who want an alternative to larger cities) and realizing that poverty reduction and social inclusion are key.