It is the quaint home of history and reverie, the centre of a tourism industry based largely on a girl with red pigtails and freckles, the place where, in 1864, 23 important men bickered, ate oysters and hashed out a plan that would become Canada. Yet Charlottetown, the picturesque capital of the country’s smallest province, has now earned a more dubious honour: it comes in dead last in the first-ever annual Maclean’s Best-Run Cities survey.
First, the good news. According to the survey, conducted for Maclean’s by the Halifax-based think tank AIMS, Charlottetown is the safest city in the country. The city of 32,000 has governance and finance indicators that are near peerless in the country, and it is one of the more environmentally healthy cities among the 31 surveyed. Translation: it’s a great place to live if safety, governance and environment are your thing. Indeed, when it comes to safety and environment, Charlottetown handily beats out its closest neighbours at the bottom of the best-run cities list: Barrie, Ont., Windsor, Ont., Fredericton and Kingston, Ont.
It is much more difficult to start a business in Charlottetown, however. Or get bang for your bucks paid in municipal taxes, or to find a park—or anyone who takes the bus, for that matter. The city ranked last in AIMS’ overall economic development index; according to AIMS figures, which focused on the period between 2005 and 2007, Charlottetown had the highest per capita economic development and infrastructure costs in the country. Quite simply, it isn’t a great place to germinate ideas, says Ken Gillis, a former manager of a Royal Bank in Charlottetown. “If people want to do something business-wise that is a little different, they have to jump through city hall hoops to get anything done.”
Charlottetown has relatively low population growth, perhaps because it has trouble attracting newcomers. Though the AIMS study suggests it’s making strides, the city nonetheless earns an F for new immigrants per 1,000 population. The effect of the lack of immigrants, often regarded as a city’s small business engine, is clearly visible: there are 45 vacant buildings in Charlottetown’s downtown core. (Notwithstanding its setting, the city also has few square metres of outdoor space per square kilometre, earning it an F in the AIMS survey category.)
Charlottetown certainly relies heavily on its heritage, particularly Anne of Green Gables, to bring in bucks. Lucy Maud Montgomery’s airy classic, which has been set to music near-daily every summer at Charlottetown’s Confederation Centre of the Arts for nearly 45 years, is Canada’s longest-running musical. “It’s Anne chocolates, Anne shops, Anne everything,” grumbled one Charlottetown native about her city recently. What is true for Charlottetown is true for Prince Edward Island in general. According to Statistics Canada, tourism accounts for 10 per cent of the province’s GDP, giving it a number one ranking in the country in this regard.
But tourism is seasonal, and the lack of business punch in other areas indirectly hurts Charlottetown in the tax category. Non-residential tax revenues account for only 27 per cent of its revenue, earning it a D- on the AIMS scorecard. (By contrast, Regina’s non-residential tax revenue accounts for 61 per cent of its revenues.) As a result, more than most other Canadian cities, Charlottetown is forced to rely on outside governments for help. “There’s a level of dependence in Charlottetown in particular to deliver services,” says AIMS executive vice-president Charles Cirtwill.
Transportation is another sore point. Charlottetown, the AIMS study notes, has a relatively efficient transportation network, with well-maintained roads and a decent enough public transportation network. Trouble is, few people are using the latter; the city bus network has a meagre four per cent ridership rate, and scarcely one per cent of Charlottetown’s population uses public transportation to get to work. “There’s no reason why people shouldn’t get on the buses,” says Gillis. “They just don’t.” Part of the reason might be they aren’t used to it: the city only launched its public transportation service in 2004.
Charlottetowners are quick to rise to the defence of their city–particularly Charlottetown Mayor Clifford Lee, who took exception to the AIMS survey results, saying it is unfair to compare it with larger, more diverse cities like Halifax and St. John’s. “Charlottetown is not Toronto or Vancouver,” says Lee, who has been in office since 2003. “I’m unpleasantly surprised, because I think we have a fairly aggressive economic development plan. In 2005, for example, Charlottetown issued more development permits in one year than we did since 1995 combined.”
The AIMS survey, notes Cirtwill, does in fact account for factors like population size in its grades. Even in that context, Charlottetown could use some improvement. “But being on the bottom of this list doesn’t necessarily mean that the people of Charlottetown are being poorly served,” Cirtwill says—the city is well-served when it comes to the bread-and-butter municipal services like garbage collection and snow removal. What it does show is how Charlottetown is lacking beyond this horizon. Economic development and a reliable, well-frequented public transportation system are key to any city’s future. Clearly, Charlottetown’s future lies beyond Anne Shirley’s pigtails, and its citizens need to get there—preferably on a bus.