We are an Entrepreneurial City, Says Victoria Mayor Lisa Helps

Douglas talks to Victoria mayor Lisa Helps as she prepares to take British Columbia’s capital city into its next era.
Lisa Helps walks into Habit on Pandora and immediately greets a couple of young hipsters sitting by the window.
“How was band practice last night?” she asks.
They answer and laugh, and I hear one of them say, “Well, you’re the mayor now.”
She introduces them to me. Both are members of Team Helps, the young, hip, media-savvy cadre of volunteers who managed her hair’s-breadth, 89-vote victory in November over incumbent Dean Fortin.
Her campaign rode a wave across the region that swept into office more young candidates and more young women. And it borrowed the script of Calgary’s Mayor Naheed Nenshi, who was also 38 when he was first elected in 2010. Helps’ successful run was data-driven, shied away from mudslinging, and relied on a demographic shift that has seen an influx of politically engaged 25 to 34-year-olds with a desire for representation.
If you listened to the water cooler talk, though, the one-term city councillor was too young, too female, too far left.
A 38-year-old who lives in Fernwood and raises her own chickens, Helps doesn’t project too much of any one stripe. Her solid acumen has been weaned editing UVic’s student newspaper, The Martlet, rebuilding the Cornerstone and Park Place as vice-chair of the Fernwood NRG, and creating Community Micro Lending. Along the way she’s been pursuing a PhD in the history of housing, homelessness and poverty in Victoria.
“I’ve been called a political entrepreneur,” Helps reveals. “I’ve always had an entrepreneurial streak and I’ve put it to use toward social good. You could say the governance of the City of Victoria is like a giant social enterprise.”
It was hard work, good planning and building a strong team, she says, that won her the election and that’s how she wants to run the city.
Are you a visionary?
I don’t know. That seems a bit much. It’s not quite the thing one says about oneself. But I’m historically good at gathering together the thoughts and desires of people, forming a vision, and actually getting things done.
Well then, what about a Lisa Helps overarching vision for Victoria?
I want to make sure Victoria is a place where there’s an opportunity for everyone to prosper. I have three steps to get there. First, to make sure it’s an affordable community, and that means more than just building homes for people who are homeless. Second, supporting our small businesses, giving them a better relationship with City Hall and the Downtown Victoria Business Association (DVBA). So City Hall becomes a platform for innovation and creativity. So when someone walks in with an idea, instead of being handed 17 forms and told “best of luck when you’ve dotted all the i’s and crossed the t’s,” we’ll create an economic development office and have the City be a better partner. Third, we need to do a better job of spending on projects so we’re truly accountable.
Obviously, the Johnson Street Bridge is part of that discussion, but is it also about being above the board and transparent?
Part of creating prosperity is getting a handle on how we spend tax dollars, yes. We’ve got a very educated public. We’ve got a very knowledgeable public. We should draw on that through public participation. Plus, we need to make decisions in context of all other decisions and ask the public for input. There are huge, huge projects on the horizon like sewage, the fire hall, Crystal Pool and the Bay Street Bridge.
Business owners say taxes are too high (almost three-and-a-half times the tax homeowners pay) and that nullifies their ability to thrive. How do we encourage them to set up here or to stay?
Are you thinking of relocating? Victoria’s a great place to do that. I want to get on a plane and go to Calgary or Vancouver or Seattle and tell people that, but I can’t until we fix the processes at City Hall. City Hall has a role to play in creating local prosperity and generating wealth by, at the very least, getting out of the way and, at the very best, being a better partner for the private sector. Our small businesses in Victoria play a fundamental role. I don’t tolerate an us-versus-them attitude from the City. We’re all us and we’re all in this together.
What have you heard from those wanting to do business here?
I hear them saying, “I want to invest in the city, make it easy for me.” Whether it’s a coffee shop or someone bringing a big technology company here, we need to set them up with a culture that’s less regulatory and more enabling — and that’s a culture shift that needs to happen at City Hall.
You want to start an economic development task force. Who will be involved with that?
I’d like to see it made up of people from tourism, from tech, from social enterprise, from the development industry and downtown retail. The task force has a six-month mandate to give mayor and council an idea of what a robust and meaningful economic development function would look like and what the deliverables for that function would be.
What do we need to do to be a more entrepreneurial city?
This is really what gets me. We are an entrepreneurial city. One of the blocks, though, has been City Hall. It’s not our staff’s fault; it’s the Byzantine forms we use. If we get input from our frontline staff and the people using our services, that will certainly help me direct staff to create a culture at City Hall that fosters the entrepreneur and small business — and to measure how many new business startups and how many vacancies there are, and how many young people are starting businesses and are staying here. My dream is someone telling me, “Oh, I can’t wait to walk into City Hall, because they’re not only going to let me open my business, they’re going to help me open my business.”
Do local entrepreneurs and members of our business community take enough risks?
No. I think not. In some ways, as much as we tout ourselves as being so progressive, we’re a conservative city when it comes to risk taking. We’re a town averse to change and averse to trying new things.
What about social entrepreneurship? The idea of using a business model to solve social problems is sweeping North America. Is it relevant?
Absolutely. It’s one of the ways we can be a real leader. You’ve got places like The Dock, and businesses like Sitka, that are running a business with a social purpose. It’s a real niche we can carve out for ourselves, a way for us to shine. There was a recent survey that asked Millennials what the purpose of business was and overwhelmingly they responded, “To build good.”
Do you feel that individual councillors might have a different set of priorities than you?
I don’t expect harmony. I expect deliberative and open dialogue. I’m not expecting that everyone is going to agree with me all the time. I listen, I gather information, and when I make a proposal or write a motion I will have to find at least four other voices to get something done. When I put forward an idea it’s no longer my idea alone. There will be no bulldozing and saying, “This is what I’m going to do.”
I feel like the challenge — and I relish this opportunity — is to come up with a concrete, focused strategic plan over the next four years. I’m going to bring much more rigour to our strategic plan.
Are we a city of grumblers and complainers?
We’re becoming a city of less grumbling and complaining and more doing. And I could have run my campaign on that mantra. As (developer) Robert Jawl told me, “You don’t innovate by waiting your turn.” I think one of the problems is we don’t try small-scale pilot projects and that’s where we need to push more as local government.
There are 54 salaries of more than $100,000 (not including police) being paid out by the City. Is there any way to bring the cost of staffing down to reasonably reflect the size of Victoria?
The really important question everyone should be asking is what value are we getting for the tax dollars we give to the city? We are reviewing the exempt compensation bylaw structure to tie into CUPE and have raises based on performance and not a bylaw. We need to take a systematic approach.
It takes a lot of different people and organizations to build a truly great city. What do we need to do to make that happen here?
I’m tired of hearing people say that Victoria has potential. I think what we have to do is unleash Victoria’s potential. We need to get out of our silos. Most people I’ve talked to feel like they’re working in isolation. That’s starting to change with Tourism Victoria and the Conference Centre working together. My job is to invite people to the table who are at odds or who hadn’t thought of collaborating. Do I see myself as a visionary? No. Do I see myself as a connector? Yes. We all need to say, within Victoria and across the region, how can we pull ourselves together to achieve greatness for all of us?