Rhetoric and reality in the Donlands

The big throwdown over the future of the Donlands got underway yesterday at the Ontario Municipal Board (OMB), with the City and Leslieville residents squaring off against the developers of a proposed retail power hub, Smart Centres. Not surprisingly, with their investment on the line, SC came out swinging:

[Smart Centres lawyer Dennis] Wood told the hearing "it's pure snobbery" that the city government and the local community would "denigrate" people who work in retail.

Those opposed to the project, including local residents and city hall, are turning up their noses at low-skill jobs, Wood said.

"Their counsel said 'a retail job is not a real job.' I was astonished he would say that, given the amount of retail employment we have in this city — how important it is to a lot of people who work very hard," said Wood.

Now, I'm not usually one to take the side of commercial developers. Trouble is, in this case they're actually right.

Sort of.

It's fascinating to me a development issue now turns on the question of what constitutes a 'good job'. The City of Toronto would like the development of the Donlands to focus on quality employment, nebulously located in the film and 'new media' industries. Now, a computer programmer working at an innovative media production house will have a much better quality of life than someone making $10 an hour on a casual, no benefits contract at Wal-Mart. The difficulty lies in who is able to get those jobs.

Lucrative new employment opportunities in new media will go to university- and college- educated individuals, the preponderance of whom come from middle class (or wealthier) backgrounds. These people are always going to be employable, and have no trouble finding jobs in Toronto. The people who would benefit the most from employment in film, new media, or other 'knowledge economy' jobs- recent immigrants, the working poor, the chronically unemployed, and the individuals spun off by the centripetal force of the collapse of Ontario's traditional manufacturing industries- likely won't find emloyment in the City's vision of the Donlands. They simply don't have the right education and skills.

So, the charge of snobbery is at least partially correct. If we're serious about creating employment opportunities for those that need them most, then a Smart Centre development, with all its Wal-Marty goodness, makes at least some short-term sense. True, being a greeter at Wal-Mart is soul-crushingly inane. But what the well-heeled residents of Leslieville and their champions in City Hall fail to understand is that, for a large segment of Toronto's population, casual employment in the service sector is the only game in town.

What's absent from City Hall's argument is any sense of building Toronto's human and social capital. If you want to create a shiny new media hub, great. Just don't pretend you're doing it to provide 'good jobs' to strugging Torontonians unless you're making a simultaneous investment in training and higher education. If you provide people with the skills to work in 'real' employment areas, you allow everyone in Toronto to benefit from the Donlands development. Partner with local colleges. Provide scholarships and mentorship programs. In short, put your money where your mouth is. Only then will your rhetoric mesh up with the reality of Toronto's economy.

I'd love to see the Donlands become a hub of creativity and economic growth. And god knows there are already enough Wal-Marts in the world. But, in the opening salvo of the OMB hearings, Smart Centres has one thing going for it: a willingness to look at some hard facts. People need jobs. And the people who need them most are not equipped to work in glitzy new media careers. So unless the City brings some cash to the table for skills training, their talk of 'real jobs' is just that- talk. And for the many Torontonians who struggle to make ends meet, its hard not to view all that chatter as the muttering of snobs. Education, as always, will make the difference.