Envision CEO touts 'once-in-a-generation' chance to attract investment

The CEO of Saint John's regional economic growth agency said the region is in a "once-in-a-generation" position to attract investment, including in the energy industry, and needs to respond.

Envision Saint John CEO Andrew Beckett spoke at a Saint John Region Chamber of Commerce luncheon Thursday following the group's annual general meeting at the Delta Brunswick hotel. Beckett laid out what he saw as the region's strengths, including its position as a gateway to global markets and a "diverse range of energy assets," including oil, nuclear, wind and solar.

"This is one thing that has surprised me .... in the last number of months, is how significant the investment opportunities are associated with the energy sector, there are massive investments to be made," Beckett said. "We're building relationships ... to put ourselves on the map as being open for business for significant investments. We're trying to attract businesses that are going to make significant fixed asset investments in the local area, because they're going to stick around."

Beckett said they're working with the New Brunswick Community College to push for a clean energy institute, which would be a "significant plus" for the local economy in terms of growing the work force and attracting innovation. He also cited strengths in tourism, including destination marketing, and in health in terms of innovation at UNB Saint John.

But while economic growth in the province looks good, Beckett noted that exports are shrinking, not growing. He said there needs to be a "growing, vibrant economic sector," and more investments like J.D. Irving's proposed $1.1B overhaul of its pulp mill, which aims to improve productivity while decrease overall emissions by relying on clean energy.

"It should be celebrated and supported from where I stand, and I'm hoping that we see more of those investments going forward, because productivity has to be addressed," he said.

He said that immigration "isn't the problem, it's the solution," that immigrants need to be welcomed and that newcomers have brought energy and drive to the region's economy. He said that the "tap is closing" when it comes to immigration numbers, saying Atlantic immigration allocations and international student numbers are going down.

"We have to jump on this opportunity because the tap is closing, and if we lose that opportunity, it will set us back," Beckett said. "We're working on a number of files that I would categorize as once-in-a-generation investments that we can attract to this area, but we need the workforce to go along with that, and we need to welcome people so we can make sure they stay here."

During the question and answer period, he said that Envision's role in addressing social challenges is being a "player at the table," saying municipalities around the region are working together to find solutions. One place he said they feel they can "move the needle" is around workforce development and engaging youth to make sure the skill base is there to take advantage of opportunities.

Beckett's talk was "really inspiring," according to the chamber's new chair, Fraser Wells. Wells was appointed during the Chamber's annual general meeting just before the luncheon talk.

"You look at all the great things that Envision is doing that perhaps the greater public isn't always fully aware of, talking about some of the aspirational projects that they're looking at, it's pretty exciting to see," Wells told Brunswick News.

Wells, who works as a wealth advisor with RBC, has served two terms on the chamber's board, including vice-chair last year, and was chosen by a succession committee headed by past chair Derrick Stanford. Wells said he's "excited" to get started.

"I think we've got a real opportunity here to strengthen our advocacy as an organization and collaborate with a lot of organizations in Saint John that may have similar interests to what we're trying to achieve," he said.

As an example Wells noted the letter from the CEOs of Saint John, Moncton and Fredericton's chambers of commerce to Premier Blaine Higgs in May asking for more housing incentives in the province, including "competitiveness" on the provincial portion of the HST for new rentals. Beckett had applauded the letter on stage, saying there are "thousands of projects that are ready to go that simply can't make the math work."

The chamber finished a "transition" year, Wells said, citing the retirement of CEO David Duplisea, the work of interim CEO Carole Cunningham and the appointment of new CEO Tracy Bell. The organization finished last year with a $70,000 deficit, which was partly due to some pandemic based programs ending and the lack of a "really big event" amid staff turnover.

"We're investing in the right ways and the team, staff within the chamber is doing a fantastic job," Wells said, noting that 100 new members have joined the chamber so far this year. "There's a lot of momentum from that point of view that will put us in a better fiscal position going forward."

In his speech after being appointed, Wells thanked past chair Mohamed Bagha of the Saint John Newcomers Centre, who wrapped up his term. Bagha told the meeting he was "filled with immense pride and gratitude" for the privilege of serving as chair, calling the past year a "remarkable journey" that has positioned the region for "even greater success in the years to come."

Andrew Bates, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Telegraph-Journal