Saint John city image taking beating

Some bad financial news this week is giving the image of the city of Saint John a bit of a black eye.

Pension plan shortfall igniting reaction

Saint John's image took another hit this week with more bad news about the city's finances, according to a local historian and researcher.

On Tuesday night, Saint John's finance commissioner told common council the city has to come up with an additional $3.4 million for 2012. That's due to poor performance by investments made by the city's pension plan.

"Cities have informal images that they develop and sometimes it's not fair," said Greg Marquis, who has examined people's perceptions of Saint John as part of a national study on cities in Canada.

Marquis has interviewed politicians and community leaders, and tracked media reports.

"There's a perception from outside of Saint John that's often negative and I know as a Saint Johner who travelled even in New Brunswick, other parts of the Maritimes and places like Ontario, the response is — 'Why would anyone ever go there?'

"It kind of grates on you, so there's the informal word of mouth that can be distorted."

Marquis said Saint John has always struggled with a negative image, despite its efforts to brand itself as an area for growth.

Although the city's industrial background has created a lot of wealth and expertise, many people from outside the area still consider it polluted and poor, he said.

It doesn't help matters that Saint John has lost more than one-fifth of its population between 1971 and 2006, Marquis said.

According to Marquis, the most vibrant cities have a lively downtown, and a strong youth population.

Saint John's focus on its cruise ship industry is helping its reputation, but Marquis says expectations remain low, partly because of the slowdown of the development of the region's so-called energy hub

"You can't wish an image into being," said Marquis. "There's two reasons why you'd try to do that — one is for the external audience, where you try to attract tourists and investment jobs to your city as well as those who want to live here. The internal reason — how do we keep people here, how do we deal with morale and spirits of people here?

"So there are two important reasons to try to promote an image, but you have to be careful the image isn't simply a sound bite and a slogan and a motto," he said.

Saint John Mayor Mel Norton has said the city's financial problems can't be fixed without a bit of pain being felt by everyone in the community.