MIRAMICHI – One of the Miramichi’s favourite sons came home to a hero’s welcome over the weekend, to the place that launched a starry and well-documented career in law, politics, business, and philanthropy.
And as a heartfelt expression of gratitude to his beloved Miramichi, Frank McKenna came bearing a gift; one he hopes will put the right amount of resources into the hands of deserving entrepreneurs who can play a role in steering Miramichi’s stalled economy in an exciting and new direction.
The former premier of New Brunswick and current deputy chair of TD Bank Group, speaking at a Miramichi Chamber of Commerce event at the Rodd Miramichi River Hotel on Saturday, revealed that he is donating $1 million to help fund the growth of technology startups in the region.
Although no explanation was needed to an appreciative crowd who gave McKenna several standing ovations, McKenna rationalized his $1 million gift by saying he hopes it is something that will help create a new economic base in the Miramichi centred on knowledge and technology, as the region tries to move away from its reliance on natural resources.
McKenna and his wife Julie had been looking for a way to give back to a community they say gave them so much during their years here, and ultimately wanted it to be something that could be sustainable and create a spirit of entrepreneurship on the Miramichi.
“I owe everything to the Miramichi. It was a wonderfully warm, supportive environment that gave us much and we wish we could do more,” McKenna said.
“This is an expression of gratitude but it is also something more profoundly important than that – it’s an expression of confidence, confidence in the resiliency of the Miramichi and the people who live here.”
McKenna, who launched his legal career just around the corner from yesterday’s announcement and served as an MLA for the former riding of Chatham from 1982-1997, said he hopes this is a gift “that keeps on giving.”
The University of New Brunswick’s Wallace McCain Institute will administer the fund for Business in conjunction with Enterprise Miramichi, with the goal being to provide financial assistance, each year, for two to five Miramichi companies with an exportable technology product and a sustainable business plan.
Participants will also gain valuable knowledge and experience through the McCain Institute’s Entrepreneurial Leaders Program.
McKenna says his biggest hope is that this fund will be a “force multiplier” whereby it would ideally attract outside investors to help stimulate further economic growth, and also for successful companies to return equity to the fund so that it can be self-sustaining for years to come.
“It would be a success for us if we could see young people that we know be able to find opportunities to stay here and live here, raise their families here, and create a new economic base on the Miramichi to replace some of the jobs we’ve lost over the years,” he said.
“Nothing in life is certain, and certainly it’s not a certainty that this will succeed – but we’ve tried a lot of things here, a lot of which have failed, so it’s time to change the channel.”
Miramichi Mayor Gerry Cormier was one of about 200 people who filled a conference room at the Chatham hotel to hear what McKenna had to say.
In a city where rumours are commonplace, Cormier said he’d heard several variations about what McKenna’s announcement could be, but added he’s beyond thrilled at what it ended up being.
“I’ll be honest with you, I heard everything from a new MRI for the hospital to him running for the federal leadership,” Cormier said.
“But to make this kind of announcement for young entrepreneurs in an economically difficult time here on the Miramichi is really moving us forward, and to be associated with the names McCain and McKenna, to get that funding, I would say that this is hope and that the tide is turning here on the Miramichi today.”
McKenna’s overarching message throughout his homecoming on Saturday was clear.
If the Miramichi and the rest of New Brunswick are going to overcome the challenging economic and fiscal times it is coping with right now and transition into a force to be reckoned with, McKenna says it’s clear there’s no magic bullet on the way.
“There are challenges we can’t do much about; we’re a small-sized province, we have less than one million people, and that’s not very much in terms of a market area or in terms of critical mass,” McKenna said.
“We’re probably never going to have General Motors of somebody put a car plant here, and let’s be blunt, climate works against us as well, the natural resource base of New Brunswick is under challenge, there’s not as many fish in the sea, there aren’t as many trees in the forest and there’s not as much ore in the ground, and our citizens are getting older and older – we are challenged.”
But that isn’t to say that all is lost. For New Brunswick to take a great leap forward and really carve out its niche on a global scale, the key is for the province to invest in what he calls its best natural resource: it’s people.
Great people have gone on to do great things from right here in New Brunswick, McKenna said, with many of them sitting in the room on Saturday.
McKenna acknowledged Moncton-based Major Drilling Group International CEO Francis McGuire, and Moosehead Breweries executive chairman Derek Oland, along with the McCain and Irving families, and even embattled Miramichi businessman Robbie Tozer as shining examples of the kind of brave, entrepreneurial spirit that we should be seeing more of in this province.
“It’s just a matter of will; theoretically Wallace and Harris McCain should not have been able to create this world-class business in Florenceville, New Brunswick ; the Irvings starting up in Bouctouche, David Ganong in St. Stephen, Jean-Claude Savoie in St. Quentin, Normand Caissie in Richibucto, – these are all people who have created world-class companies from small, rural New Brunswick.”
“Robbie Tozer here in Miramichi put hundreds and hundreds of people to work, and some would say that he suffered some setbacks – but that’s what entrepreneurship is all about, and the only people who do not fail at entrepreneurship are those who don’t try.”
The adversity facing New Brunswick and the seemingly uphill battle is something McKenna says could be healthy for the province moving forward.
And despite all of those challenges, the former premier said he has every confidence that the spirit of innovation of entrepreneurship will be this province’s saving grace, and one that will take it to remarkable places.
The application deadline for the 2011 portion of the Miramichi Technology Fund is June 28, and is to be delivered to the Enterprise Miramichi office no later than 3 p.m.