Originally Posted: Saturday, December 28, 2002
It is interesting that, as recently as the 1960's, Buffalo and Toronto were roughly equal in size. And Buffalo was maybe even the more dynamic of the two. Many around here recall when Buffalo was the weekend destination of choice for Torontonians looking to escape their rather staid town. After all, Toronto was Canada's "second city" -- stepsister to larger and more glamorous Montreal.
Since Canada's founding, Montreal had been its financial and cultural center.
But by the 1960's, divisions between English Canada and overwhelmingly French
Quebec were causing friction. And then the French-Canadian separatist movement
took a violent turn. Montreal and the Province of Quebec suffered several years
of riots, kidnappings, political murders, and bombings. In 1967, Charles De
Gaulle, during a speech in Quebec City, proclaimed in front of thousands of
excited listeners (and an outraged English Canada), "Vive le Quebec
Suddenly, Quebec’s independence seemed a possibility. And fearing the radical agenda of the independentistes, Montreal’s financial industry fled for the safe confines of Toronto. Thousands of English-speaking Quebeckers followed close behind. Even La Banque de Montreal moved its headquarters to English Ontario where it remains to this day – it did keep the old name, however.
During the seventies and eighties, Toronto benefited from this growing influx of money and power and the foundations of its subsequent growth were laid. Toronto would be the financial and industrial capital of Canada. Equal in population in 1971, today Toronto has grown to almost five million people while Montreal counts three million. And, yes, Toronto’s Pearson Airport has grown along with the city -– Pearson is ranked 28th in the world based on passenger counts.
But even as the exodus to Toronto was beginning, Montreal was embarking on its own ambitious airport expansion. The Province of Quebec sunk hundreds of millions into a new airport, Mirabel, to ensure that Montreal would be ready for a projected flood of international travel and freight. But the flood never came.
Business air traffic dropped in Montreal along with business activity; and the majority of international airlines cut their schedules into Mirabel. Some pulled out altogether. Even the politically-minded Air Canada cut back on it's service. Originally designed for five terminals, only one has ever been built.
Toronto’s airport didn’t and couldn't grow Toronto any more than Montreal’s airport could shrink Montreal – airports simply reflect economic facts. In her landmark book, The Economy of Cities, Jane Jacobs wrote about what makes cities grow and what doesn’t.
But New York proved to be more dynamic than Jersey City. Prior to the canal’s completion, New York had been developing new goods and services at an ever-growing rate. It had already surpassed Philadelphia as the largest manufacturing city in the country. Jacobs concludes:
“We are all taught in school that New York grew so rapidly after 1825 “because” of the Erie Canal. Did it really? Then why not Jersey City? Jersey City had as good an access to the Erie Canal and the Atlantic Ocean as Manhattan did. It also had the added advantage of being on the mainland.”
Does all this mean that the NFIA shouldn't be developed? Not necessarily.
“Development and growth processes were going on in New York that cannot be accounted for, retroactively, by the canal. To be sure, New York’s high rate of development work put the canal to heavy use after it was built. But lesser cities found no such potent magic in the canals they built in emulation of New York.”
International airfreight shipments really are projected to grow substantially
in coming years; but whether shippers think it’s profitable for that freight to
pass through Niagara Falls is another question. As Montreal’s experience with
Mirabel illustrates: if you build it, they won’t necessarily come.
After all, we have five bridges to Canada and we're discussing building another one. We just built a new airport in Buffalo and will soon improve it with a long-needed second runway. Is there really any evidence that still another airport would somehow improve our fortunes?
When the Falls powers-that-be start predicting how many jobs a redeveloped NFIA will create “for” the area and how many tax dollars it will generate, be very suspicious. If developing NFIA becomes the next must-do, silver bullet, grow the economy, government-spending project, then hold onto your wallets, remember Mirabel and Jersey City, and don’t be fooled again.