Envision Saint John: The Regional Growth Agency
Always Moving Forward
Business View Magazine interviews Paulette Hicks, CEO of Envision Saint John, for our focus on Growth & Economic Development in New Brunswick
Launching less than two-years ago, on January 1, 2021 – Envision Saint John: The Regional Growth Agency came out swinging with innovative efforts and focused teamwork to initiate collective action in and around New Brunswick’s famous port city. The first of its kind in Canada, the new regional growth agency brings together three legacy organizations – destination marketing (Discover Saint John), real estate development (Develop Saint John), and economic development (Economic Development Greater Saint John) under one collaborative mandate and mission – to be a single, powerful voice for growth in the Saint John region.
Led by dynamic business leader, CEO Paulette Hicks, who comes to the role with more than 25 years of experience in community and economic growth initiatives, and a passion to lead transformation change and deliver return on investment for the Saint John region.
Paulette recalls how harnessing the talent of her small but mighty and strategic team to stand up during a pandemic, helped to create the region’s roadmap for growth.
“Part of it was about creating winning conditions,” Hicks says. “Everyone has a role to play and alignment with our partners is critical. As the regional growth agency, we play that coordinating role for our region and serve our community in a holistic and authentic way. Bringing key people to the table to strategically move the Saint John region forward is how we will reach our 10-year outcomes.”
Hicks insists this is “a big shift” for the area’s economic development. Traditionally, they’ve operated more as a mosaic of neighboring but not bonded communities.
“It was a very bumpy landscape, I’ll declare that out of the gate,” Hicks admits. “But we have come a long way in our first 20 months and we are seeing the benefits of working together as a collaborative region.”
According to Hicks, a “we/them scenario” wasn’t conducive to growth and development in the long run. And it’s when the region came together as a collective and agreed that Saint John is more than a city – it’s a truly unique region with a strong history and a shared vision for future growth – that there was a shift to move forward.
“Through acknowledging that if we wanted our children and grandchildren to stay here and to have options for a career here, we needed to have a really strong focus on growth so anyone could avail of that. Not working together ran the risk of taking that choice away from people we care about. I think that’s how people got there.”
Comprised of the City of Saint John and the neighboring towns of Grand-Bay Westfield to the west, and Rothesay, Quispamsis, Hampton, and the Village of St. Martins to the northeast, the broad geographical area targeted by the agency will benefit from improved alignment and greater access to capital to support transformational regional projects. For the first time in history, regional mayors are signing joint letters of support for strategic opportunities that are helping to elevate the Saint John region’s place brand and generate regional economic impact.
“There was obviously some debate around the agency’s name, but there was no denying that the City of Saint John would be the anchor,” offers Hicks. “We know if Saint John succeeds, the region succeeds. When the region succeeds, New Brunswick succeeds.”
“We’d built a solid foundation for our destination brand through the legacy agency, Discover Saint John,” adds Jillian MacKinnon, VP of Marketing, Communications & Strategic Initiatives. “We took all that research and we’ve now applied it to the development of a place brand.”
She describes the agency as “a complex brand ecosystem” and their “North Star” for attracting investment business, immigrants, new residents, and students. “It was really built out over the past 20 months through a lot of research and learning,” MacKinnon says.
A new destination brand, “Discover Saint John & the Towns by the Bay” was launched in 2021 “to great fanfare locally,” according to MacKinnon. “This year, we’ve really built on what we call Paulette’s Listening Tours. When Paulette joined the agency in early February 2021, her first order of business as part of a 30-, 60-, and 90-day plan, was to go around and meet everybody. That meant everybody in the ecosystem and all the municipalities. Talking to key stakeholders, small business owners, and global headquarters about the issues, challenges, and opportunities that they saw for the region. We took that and we built out a strategic vision. We did some market research and developed value propositions based on all of that knowledge.”
Envision Saint John has taken a whole-system approach where all partners and ecosystems have accountabilities to achieve success. While the agency won’t directly create the jobs, they are working with partners and creating the alignment, that will fuel the region’s economic rebirth. By focusing on growth readiness, talent pipeline and attraction, entrepreneurship, and business growth, the municipalities are expecting ambitious 10-year outcomes to increase the population by 25%, and the municipal tax base by 30-35%.
“We also see great value in having our City Managers and CAOs on our board,” Hicks mentions. “Having that leadership at the board level as investors, and actually having them work together, makes us stronger. It’s proven to be very successful.”
Not only is the agency’s governance model different, but it also approaches traditional economic development work in an innovative way. By convening platforms, which are forums that engage stakeholders to collaborate on strategic areas of opportunity, Envision Saint John is fostering a collective impact model where stakeholders, partners, and the community are all held accountable for realizing their aspiring 10-year outcomes. Investing in tourism infrastructure and product development are also going to be crucial tools for growth as the agency moves to manage and maximize the enormous value of the region’s many natural assets.
“The Port of Saint John, for example, is the next great Canadian port,” Hicks says. “There’s tremendous growth happening there and some major investment as it relates to infrastructure. Canadian Pacific is coming back to the area after 30 years and bringing nearly $100M. That’s really going to position the port for significant growth as it relates to logistics and buildout.”
Another prime example from this season is the Area506 Shipping Container Village, a full waterfront experience with a wide array of retail shops, food trucks, a performance space, and waterfront container bar. The venue recently hosted the city’s explosive “Bash on the Bay”, which was party-central for Memorial Cup ticket holders in town for the postseason round-robin hockey tournament. “We have major events happening,” promises Hicks. “We’ve not sat idle during the pandemic. We’ve worked a lot of files. We’re working with the gritty go-getters in the community. We’re getting things done.”
Envision Saint John is also working closely with the University of New Brunswick – which is spearheading with Canadian firsts in programming – at its unique Tucker Park location in Saint John.
“We actually have an amazing health cluster – with the Saint John Regional Hospital, UNB Saint John, Dalhousie Medicine New Brunswick, and our New Brunswick Community College,” says Hicks. “That cluster, all working together, is building out specialized programs, integrated health, and health and technology initiatives. We have a number of these platforms that involve working with key regional leaders to push the files forward. Another example would be our historic courthouse on Sydney Street in uptown Saint John. It was purchased by our local theatre company, who are building it out into an art stage and cultural attraction. We’re working on all kinds of different files that are meaningful, always from a growth perspective.”
These collaborations are already showing how collective impact benefits economic growth. When everyone is involved, everyone is part of the solution. Alignment is everything.
“The City of Saint John is made up of many firsts,” sums up Hicks. “We were the first incorporated city in Canada. We have a steep, steep history – but we are ‘Always Moving Forward.’ There’s a DNA in this region – like I said, a lot of firsts came out of this place – and we won’t just rest on that legacy.”
AT A GLANCE
Envision Saint John
What: An innovative regional growth agency
Where: Based in the City of Saint John, New Brunswick