A Proposal for Making It Easier to Stay Here: On Economic Development, Tax Policy, and Youth Retention

I sat down with a couple of different people over the last few weeks to discuss the possibility to rethink how we collectively address youth retention in Windsor. It’s an incredibly pressing (and yet somehow invisible) emergency. As a faculty member and collaborator with many recent graduates, it’s a professional and personal challenge to see people move away from Windsor. And yet, it’s so rare that recent grads do stick it out that it’s impossible to imagine how huge of an impact they could have on the city.

And, of course, it also begs the question — why do people move?

The draw of a bigger city, their experiences here in Windsor, and job prospects are all often cited for packing up at the end of an undergraduate degree, and for good reason. These things can weigh heavily on a decision of staying in Windsor after graduation, as the city itself cannot offer much in lieu of them. However, I have to wonder what ‘the thing’ is that might help recent graduates decide not to move away. What about this city might be able to draw people to stay and even bring people back?

It started with cheerleaders. Or more specifically, an idea for a guerrilla cheerleading squad. that went something like this: What if we paid unemployed recent graduates to show up to political events — city council, funding announcements, town hall meetings — to advocate for more resources being put towards youth retention? The guerrilla cheerleading squad would show up, make some noise, and hopefully draw attention to the lack of ambition and absence of real work being put towards keeping young and creative talent in this city.

But, that conversation led to an honest assessment of potential impact. A cheerleading squad might make the paper once, it might draw some attention to the issue, but ultimately, we wouldn’t be arming ourselves to have a conversation about what should be done, or what could be done with some imagination, to address the issue. The long-term impact would evaporate.

So, that led to another conversation. How could we enact a kind of long-term impact towards addressing the lack of initiative put towards youth retention at the regional level? It’s a conversation that I’ve been having for two years (and probably even longer), and yet it feels like the exact same conversation over that entire time.

There’s a reality here in Windsor that always seems to surprise people from away when we tell them about it. First, commercial property taxes are really, really high. But that’s not the surprising part. Second, there’s a lot of vacant commercial spaces and a lot of need for affordable space. But, that’s not surprising either. The third and surprising part is that if you own a commercial property, and it’s vacant, you can fill out a two-page form and get a property tax rebate. So, naturally, there’s little incentive to reduce the rent to reflect the realities of the market and economy here. And in turn, there are few opportunities for a young start-up of any kind to get into a space and get to work doing whatever great thing they might want to do.

Long-term impact will be driven by some radical short-term changes here in the city. These changes need to be developed specifically for Windsor, they should try to solve a couple of parallel problems (but not attempt to solve every problem), and they should be something that might be able to make national headlines. With that in mind, there’s a preliminary plan. It’s early, it’s naive, but it’s going to be further developed and researched. And, it goes something like this:

Instead of a tax rebate just for vacant space, that same rebate should be extended to allow (actually, to encourage) landlords to make their space available free of charge for new businesses, artists, and non-profits operating in their first year and still access the rebate. Businesses, sole proprietors (artists), and non-profits would all register to verify that they were indeed a new startup and they would find the appropriate vacant space and interested landlord — perhaps in collaboration with the area’s BIA. The landlord would fill out a very similar to what already exists two-page form, while noting their request for exemption of the necessity for 100% vacancy for supplying space to one of these startups, and ultimately receive the same tax rebate while supplying vital and incredibly necessary space for young creative people. In the second year of such an arrangement, the startup renting the space could pay a graduated fee (perhaps 50% market value in year 2, 75% market value in year three, and full market value in year four if they could stick it out), or perhaps they would just enter into a normal lease agreement. The bottom line is that the vacant space is filled, there is wealth and job creation, and most importantly, a young creative person sticks it out in the city. And, hopefully, we can tell the world that the city is doing this.

As I noted, research on this is really, really preliminary. There might be a huge number of hurdles or there might already be plans underway to do this, there could be a thousand examples of similar programs elsewhere or it might be a truly unique take on municipal action on youth retention and economic development. We’ll find out as time goes on.

In the meantime, if you have any links, resources, or research to share, please post it in the comments. More soon.

6 Replies to “A Proposal for Making It Easier to Stay Here: On Economic Development, Tax Policy, and Youth Retention”

  1. Our elected officials don’t care enough to bother with anything like this… Nothing will be done until it gets sensationalized in the media, or a huge crisis is on our hands.

  2. Late to reply on this but Justin you’re touching on all of the things that are near and dear to me about how to move Windsor forward. Clearly the flight of skill from Windsor stems from a purely municipal-level economic problem such as what you’ve began to pick at.

    As an employer/entrepreneur myself, the support and resources available to make a lasting impact here are, well, good, perhaps not exactly great, and a “great” solution would be much better to foster and accelerate new industry. That said I’m about to set up shop at the Downtown Accelerator with WEtech, and the affordability and value is mindblowing compared to ‘regular’ commercial properties I’ve priced out.

    From the employee side of things, there’s still a mismatch between graduates (and their labour sectors/skills) and the availability of an employment market for the skills they possess in the most recent 2011 Census data.

    There is a youth retention task force that has been put together by a variety of community actors, meets once a month; unfortunately I’ve been too busy of late to even find out more about it let alone attend but I think it’s something I need to seriously consider attending. Send me an email and I’ll direct you to more info about it if you’re interested.

    Otherwise, aside from writing news and doing what I normally do, seeing economic revitalization / the future of Windsor / youth retention / an enlarged white collar sector…remains at the top of things I could discuss / strategize about for hours and hours on end.

    I’ve just felt — and aside from the every-few-months convo about it on here — like nobody truly cares / wants to make the effort / is capable of even addressing ways to advance the issue.

  3. Windsor needs something like this:


    It will keep people here and maybe attract new people to live here (and might even entice ex-Windsorites to return. It would also encourage more collaborative projects and sharing of expertise since creative people would be in such close proximity and the tools and space would be available at all times [i’m imagining something like BCL’s Skills for Good(s) but on a grander scale].

    I’m not sure if something like this already exists in Windsor (or maybe Detroit?) I’ve seen some industrial buildings and old houses that have been converted to offices, but I’m not sure if they’re residentially-zoned as well. Any ideas?

  4. Research on this/these topics is not preliminary at all. I have been researching city building for about ten years…However, Windsor and “new ideas” seem to have a very stormy marriage – an example of that was Riverside Neighbourhood Inc’s suggestion that vehicular traffic be curtailed and instead given over to cycling traffic. That was based on solid research – and since that suggestion was made, many other cities have gone on to do just that. It is also the subject of my graduate thesis.

    I too have had most of my children leave this city – and the key to keeping them here has nothing to do with the spectacles and “tourist draws” which we regard so fondly, but development, not merely of jobs, but of meaningful jobs. After all, if it is someone’s choice to be a waiter in a tourist “hotspot”, even that can be accomplished more readily in Toronto – not Windsor.

    I suggest that you coordinate your work with the growing academic interest in,and cross-disciplinary study of therapeutic landscapes – there is much ground to cover here. Judging by some of the things I’ve seen, this would actually fit nicely with some of the things your group has done.

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