And now the bad news

Charlottetown’s not a bad place to live, but it could be run better

by Martin Patriquin

And now the bad newsIt 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.

Canada's best-run citiesALSO AT MACEANS.CA: How Burnaby earned the top spot ——    How the poll numbers break down ——    Andrew Coyne’s analysis

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.




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And now the bad news

  1. Great picture Skye !!!

    We're proud of you.

    M & D

  2. The Best and Cutest Little Busker in Charlottetown.
    Bankers friend and wife.
    B & D

  3. As a resident of Charlottetown, I agree with this McLean's article, having been dealing with City Hall for two years on a residential issue. I have jumped through all their hoops and then some, without any results or movement forward – or even a follow-up call. This issue is in regards to my home and family's safety, but according ot the Mayor, this city's by-laws "aren't designed for the protection of its residents and/or their property". We've tried to make contact with anyone higher than him, but to no avail.
    This city is all about who you are and who you know.

    On the issue of public transportation: yes, there has been some progress in this area. However, the reasoning for the low usage for getting to work is the bus schedule just simply does not work with business schedules. You end up arriving either an hour before your shift, or an hour late. For example, if you work at the mall (which closes at 9:00), you have to get to the last bus at 9:30. That means completing all closing duties in half an hour or less, or finding alternate transportation to get you home.
    If City Hall wants the bus system to work, they should use it and fix its problems.

    • You know, Rachael, I can identify with your transportation problems, although I don't live in Charlottetown. In my community, the bus schedule is also inefficient. Every time they change the schedule, you can bet that the only people who will benefit by the change are those who already take the bus. It starts at the wrong time in the morning, doesn't serve every part of the community (and this community covers quite a large chunk of geography), and the latest change has been the most costly and inefficient. The schedule remains the same, but now there are 2 buses running, an hour apart. Some times, as a result of impatient bus drivers who will not wait at a stop if there is no one waiting, bus 1 and bus 2 meet each other at a stop. Then the driver of the last bus in the row takes a break so that the other bus can get a good start on him. Our tax dollars at work!

  4. Where did the AIMS survey get the idea that the roads of Charlottetown are well maintained? I have lived in three countries and in three provinces from coast to coast within Canada and nowhere have I found road maintenance in such a poor state as in Charlottetown.

    The Spring time potholes might be filled as expected but road work is done on a patch quilt basis, often creating more bumps in the road. Worse of all are the manhole covers set in the line of traffic and several inches below the road level which cause may drivers to swerve to avoid them if they don't want to take their vehicle into the garage for wheel alignment or suspension replacement

  5. I understand that little girl in the picture is the next Natalie Mcmaster…you go girl!!!

    R and K !

  6. I've lived in Charlottetown for 5 years. The roads have never been fully maintained! I agree with Dic. University ave. is awful. You have to swerve over to the opposite lane to avoid those dreaded manhole covers. In saying that, the town has made many improvements since May… especially downtown.

  7. The bus schedule is impossible at the best of times, and the drivers don't show up when they're supposed to. They're either way early and you miss it, or way late and you wonder if you did miss it. They're also absolutely freaking insane. I've had so many bad bus experiences that, despite it's the cheapest way to go, you have to practically force me onto one these days.

  8. >>>Charlottetown has relatively low population growth, perhaps because it has trouble attracting newcomers.<<<

    ……………or perhaps that is why it such a GOOD place to live. Rampant population growth seldom makes for a peaceful urban environment. ……Does Charlottetown really need more strip malls, muffler shops and burger joints? Let alone all the infrastructure thats required with population growth.
    We must shed this idea that we need MORE PEOPLE……We DON,T. It will not improve anything. As any long time resident of Vancouver….Toronto…Brampton…Calgary…..

    >>>the city nonetheless earns an F for new immigrants per 1,000 population. <<<

    …………or how about an A for keeping the city liveable…Immigration, while brings lots of corner shops….brings many new problems that I,m certain the good people of Charlottetown can live without.

  9. Wow RDK, your comment, "Immigration. . ..brings many new problems that I'm certain the good people of Charlottetown can live without" borders on all-out bigotry. So the people of Charlottetown are "good people" but the immigrants are problems? I'm sure the First Nations people of the Maritimes thought the same thing about your ancestors. That's the very reason I and many of my friends left small-town Maritime "cities" – they're more than happy to have tourists visit and take their money, but if someone from "away" wants to move in, that famous island hospitality soon shows its true colours as a cliquey and snobbish community who are smilingly hostile towards newcomers at best, resistant to change and bureaucratic to the point of insanity. All of my ex-patriot Island friends agree – PEI is a beautiful place to visit, but a horribly inhospitable place to lay down your roots. Unless you want to be stuck potato farming or working at Tim Hortons for the rest of your natural life – or unless you're great friends with the rich and powerful people of Charlottetown – you'd be better off making a life for yourself as far away from the "good people" of Charlottetown as possible, especially if you're gay, an entrepreneur from "away" a visible minority.

    It's attitudes like yours that are slowly sealing the fate of Prince Edward Island's future. I hope you like potato farming or running a seasonal Anne shop. Without immigrants and new blood, Charlottetown will deteriorate and dwindle into a pissant little ghost town of crotchety & cliquey old men & women who will sit on their collective porches, shaking their heads and wonder in dismay why their city died.

  10. Here here; excellent response, East Coast no more. And I live in Charlottetown (born and raised; left and came back)!

  11. "Though the AIMS study suggests it's making strides, the city nonetheless earns an F for new immigrants per 1,000 population. "

    So, too many white people born and raised in Canada. This is a bad thing, so incredibly bad it deserves an 'F'. Or so the brilliant would-be ethnic cleansers who came up with this survey claim. Hey, genius, ever consider connecting the dots between their low crime rate/general pleasantness and a lack of immigration?

    Any study which would greatly penalize a community for being too white is tantamount to inciting ethnic cleansing, something the UN frowns upon. Watch your words.

    "The effect of the lack of immigrants, often regarded as a city's small business engine"

    By who? PC chilled journalists who'd get canned faster than you can say Jan Wong for expressing an independant thought? No! The evidence is overwhelming that immigration is a net drag on the economy, with one study estimating $18 billion in direct costs associated with immigration. We spend billions integrating and pandering to immigrants, this wouldn't be necessary if they were the drivers of the economy.

    Do you really hate your fellow citizens so much Martin that you sincerely believe that economic growth is beyond the capabilities of Canadians born and raised in Canada? That we need people from the poorest, most violent, most anti-woman, most anti-gay, most racist countries in the world to be the engine of our economy? We don't!

    "there are 45 vacant buildings in Charlottetown's downtown core. "

    Which you attribute to a lack of immigrants, rather than, say, taxes and an unco-operative city hall that your own article concedes exist. Interestingly, the flip side of the coin is that a businessperson, or citizen, can get cheap land and buildings. This is a good thing. Would you prefer that PEI be like the rest of Canada with $350,000 bungalows? You also ignore PEI's laws against mainlanders and foreigners buying property there, something that has kept the cost of owning a home or business to more realistic levels.

    What kind of study penalizes a city harshly for having too many Canadians? You're pushing borderline ethnic cleansing here, dude.

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