Crack city Syndrome

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WHEN THIS COLUMN is printed it is possible, even probable, that Toronto will have a new mayor. The past two weeks have seen the normal city hall rhetoric of pipes and potholes replaced with a script seemingly drawn from HBO’s television drama The Wire, a show which masterfully depicted the seamy underbelly of Baltimore civic affairs and the close linkages between politicians, drug dealers and the police. In the Toronto version an embattled mayor is accused of smoking crack and lampooned on late-night talk shows and ripped apart in op-eds. It’s inexcusable, but are embarrassment and calls for accountability a sufficient response?

First there were the crack-video allegations brought to us by Gawker (very famous for hisĀ spin mop reviews series) and then the Toronto Star. Then came the exodus of staff from the mayor’s office, with five quitting within one week. Even more shocking were the subsequent allegations that the video was linked to a homicide. A widely distributed photo showed the victim posing with the mayor. Then, in the heat of the moment, the Globe and Mail released an investigative report on the Ford family revealing that Doug Ford allegedly dealt hash back in the 198os. Denying both the existence of the video and the allegations made by the Globe, the Ford brothers took to the airwaves to label the media a “bunch of maggots.” Touche, Ford brothers.

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Yet the usual Ford strategy has not worked particularly well in this crisis. There are too many foibles to list, but in the past the mayor has denied wrongdoing and steered discussion toward his record of fighting for the little guy against the elite art-snobs of Toronto to some effect. It is doubtful, however, that this “war on gravy” rhetoric will save him this time. Polls may show that the scandal has not shaken the support of the faithful, but city hall is in chaos, little is getting done and this will almost certainly have an impact on voter confidence.

The mix of responses to the scandal has been interesting. On the one hand the public loves to see the powerful toppled from their pedestals. This collective schadenfreude is made even more sumptuous by his history of blunders. Not to mention that he seems to embody a sort of comic-book-like villain. On the other, I think the blistering attacks, largely seen in the pages of the Toronto Star, are emblematic of a very liberal response to scandal. Torontonians are embarrassed, and they think it’s affecting the city’s reputation.

There’s value to embarrassment, but I couldn’t care less whether Toronto’s reputation as a “world-class” city is affected or not–Rick Salutin has called this inane civic boosterism a true civic embarrassment and I couldn’t agree more. What is truly embarrassing about Toronto under the Ford mayoralty is the fact that he has deepened inequality and poverty and made life miserable for those on the margins of society. Cuts to libraries, parks and swimming pools, food programs for children in poverty, city-run daycares and public housing have made this a less liveable city. While these may not have the appeal of a drug scandal, surely the 34 homeless deaths in 2012 should embarrass us?

Yet these stories do not feature in the world-class city narrative spun by Toronto’s elite. In fact, from Cape Town to Beijing, attempts at making cities “world-class” have generally resulted in mass removals of the homeless, the privatization of public space and generous subsidies to corporations. For those who would see Toronto follow this model, Rob Ford is a distraction from a grander project of social reform that prioritizes the construction of sporting facilities rather than social housing and funding for tourism campaigns rather than shelter beds.

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Previous mayor David Miller typifies this liberal obsession with building world-class, competitive cities. Miller carried out a range of social cleansing policies, which included banning the homeless from sleeping at city hall and arresting those who slept under the Gardiner Expressway. This cleansing of the streets has been accompanied by the rapid condo-fication and gentrification of whole neighbourhoods, which has pushed the working class and the poor to the edges of the city and into the 905 neighbourhoods. Like Ford, Miller supported lower taxes, and specifically a shift from commercial to residential taxes, to keep the city “competitive.”

It is unlikely that Ford will be remembered for his attacks on the city workers, his cuts to social housing or his disdain for the city’s libraries. While a scandal can make for exciting headlines, it doesn’t necessarily result in better politics.

The Battle for Paris; The next mayor of the French capital will be a woman. But which one?

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Byline: Roger Kaplan

If you inhabit the Left Bank of Paris, you live left and vote right. The Left Bank is on the southern shore of the river Seine, and the heart of it is the Latin Quarter and Saint-Germain-des-Pres, a small, dense country you can cross on foot in half an hour. Around here they vote right, though you may have some difficulty finding anyone who owns up to it.

There are a few neighborhoods on the far west side of the city with unapologetic conservative voters, just as on the city’s far east there are still echoes of the songs heard on the barricades of Paris’s revolutionary history. But people are sensible where a square meter of real estate is worth $10,000, and no one would call the popular, retiring mayor of the city, Bertrand Delanoe, lifelong Socialist, a class warrior. He has been in charge since 2001 (the first nominal leftist to hold the office), and when he turns over the keys to the Hotel de Ville to his successor, who will be the city’s first lady mayor, she will pursue his policies of gentrification and beautification and his preference for avoiding big issues such as gay marriage and immigration, not to mention the huge economic problems of crushing deficits and stupendous unemployment.

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One possible next mayor is the center-right UMP’s Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet, who is young (40), a mother of two, bright, gifted, rich, liberal. She was Nicolas Sarkozy’s environment minister, then communications director in his losing bid for reelection as president in 2012. She is mayor of a town in the Essonne, south of the capital. An ancestor was a hero of the American Revolution. She wants to convert some metro stations into swimming pools and make some neighborhoods auto-free. She is what we would call a politically correct liberal, and there are “dissident” conservative candidates who will drain votes from her in the first round of the election on March 23, as will the xenophobic National Front.

Which should comfort the other possible post-Delanoe mayor, his loyal deputy, the attractive, youngish (54) Anne Hidalgo, whose parents brought her from Cadiz at age 2 and who is the very image of the modern nonideological Socialist apparatchik. She too wants to beautify the city with green spaces and pedestrian walks. And she wants “social housing,” what we call subsidized, along Avenue Foch, the Park Avenue of Paris.

To be sure, no one expects either Hidalgo or NKM, as Kosciusko-Morizet is known, to take her crazy plans off the drawing boards. The idea in Paris is to come across as big-hearted and do the sensible thing. Live left but govern right, that is the ticket. And it works the other way too: You can talk tough on crime, as NKM does (crime has been spiking in French cities), knowing that the mayor has nothing to do with law enforcement. The lady who appears most likely to keep the lid on will win. Hidalgo has played the game no less than NKM, as when she bravely shouted it out with London mayor Boris Johnson over which city is better for entrepreneurial capitalism.

However that may be, it is Paris for sure that takes the prize for most opaque electoral system. Voters vote in their district, or arrondissement, and they choose not a candidate but a party list. The results determine who will sit on the 20 arrondissement councils, each of which elects an arrondissement mayor, and also sends its list-leaders to the all-city council, which in turn elects the mayor of Paris.

The handsome baroque building that holds the town hall of the Fifth Arrondissement, on the square of the Pantheon, has been held since 1983 by a conservative, shrewd, amiable, hard-nosed pol named Jean Tiberi, who was also mayor of Paris from 1995 to 2001. In this vital core of the Left Bank (the other Left Bank arrondissement, the Sixth, also has a conservative mayor), one is reminded of the New Yorker writer wondering how Nixon had won the presidency since she didn’t know anybody who voted for him. I have spent half my life in Paris, and I never met anyone who admitted voting for Jean Tiberi until Tiberi showed up on Rosh Hashanah at the shul in the rue Vauquelin and I asked the man next to me, who dat, and he said, the mayor. You guys vote for him? Sure. Goes to Midnight Mass, too, on Christmas Eve.

So there are Tiberi voters after all, and not, as the Socialists used to charge, simply ghosts, graveyard electors, nonresidents, invented ballots.

Traditionally (if less theatrically), it was like this throughout Paris. Paris is the Jacobin city, the city of the Commune, the city of barricades and red flags, but it always voted right. You can have noble sentiments, but you want to temper them with common sense, and you want a city that works. To be sure, there were always red districts. Look at the map.

It is not the Left Bank that is red but the east side of the Right Bank, where the squares and streets have names like Bastille, Colonel Fabien (a Communist hero of the Resistance), and Bataille-de-Stalingrad. The arrondissements here still vote red, maybe from habit. The Twentieth stayed left in 2008 with nearly 70 percent of the votes, and there is no reason to believe it will change. Next door, the Nineteenth did the same, by a smaller majority.

The UMP led by NKM thought this was its year because President Francois Hollande, a Socialist, is very unpopular, despite his defense of black Africa, a task he has undertaken with a modesty and a determination that one would like to see in an American president engaged in long wars. The UMP is banking on voters’ anxieties over issues closer to them than Africa, such as the high cost of living, which combined with precarious employment can be hell. Anxiety, however, may be simply the normal French temperament, balanced by thoughts of the three-hour Sunday lunch and plans for the six weeks at the seashore in summertime.

Hidalgo, bright, good-looking, capable, experienced in all aspects of municipal affairs, is ahead in the citywide polls, if not in the arrondissement where she is running, the Fifteenth, a nice, airy place to live, near the Champ de Mars, with parks and sports facilities. The arrondissement is held by the right and may well stay that way. But under the electoral-list system, Hidalgo will surely receive a seat on the arrondissement council, from which she could still make the move to the Paris city hall.

The problem with the right is that Kosciusko-Morizet, heiress to two great French families representing politics and commerce, and herself a brainy techie yuppie, is not well liked in the UMP. She is green, in the environmentalist sense of the word, she has an engineering bent, she is for modern things, innovation, science. Leading a deeply divided party and contending with the National Front ultras, she may see the left finally seize the Fifth, where Jean Tiberi’s son is leading a dissident right-wing list against NKM’s designated UMP regular.

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NKM, running in the Fourteenth, could win her council seat while, like her rival next door, leaving the other side in control of the district. Delusions of grandeur? Maybe the UMP thought that 2014 was so sure to be their year that they would sweep Paris the way Jacques Chirac used to, and NKM would garner fame and glory by capturing the red Fourteenth.

In this regard at least, the Paris elections are representative of the contests in the country’s other 30,000 municipalities (the most in Europe; Germany, for example, has 12,000). The right is not expected to seriously dent the Socialists’ control of a large majority of French towns, with only Marseilles and Bordeaux among the bigs staying in conservative hands. By the same token, the National Front, competing seriously in under 100 localities, may get as many as 10, including depressed places like Forbach in the eastern rust belt and Henin-Beaumont near Belgium, as well as some towns in its traditional bases in the Mediterranean south.

We shall know soon enough. The east of Paris is red, the west is blue, and in between, the arrondissements around the Louvre, the tony streets, the Tuileries, the palace whence Hollande scooters about on secret love missions, are generally blue, but you never know these days, with the UMP and the Socialists happily being elites in the city where, they say, deserving Americans go after they die.

Roger Kaplan is a writer in Washington.

Where is the Tories’ secret weapon?

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‘You did this,’ David Cameron repeatedly declared to Tory donors as he reeled off a list of the government’s achievements at the Black and White ball on Monday night. Three months before the general election, the atmosphere at this lavish fundraiser at the Grosvenor House Hotel was self-congratulatory and more upbeat than perhaps it should have been, considering the polls. As guests made ever larger bids in the fundraising auction, the mood was one of confidence that the Tories would be in office again after May. By the end of the evening, there was heady talk of a Tory majority.

But it is not the donor class who will determine whether the Tories have the seats to govern alone. Rather, it is lower middleclass and skilled working-class voters, the so-called C1s and C2s, and especially those in the marginals of the West Midlands and the north west.

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The last time the Tories passed the magical 326-seat mark, 23 years ago, John Major won a majority of lower middle-class votes. But at the last election, there was only a 3 per cent swing among this group to the Tories. The party’s support has fallen among these voters in this parliament, down to 30 per cent in the last ICM poll. With the skilled working class, the story is even worse for the Tories: they are in third place with C2s, behind both Labour and Ukip.

This weakness is one reason why it is so hard to see the Tories winning a majority. It all adds to the current Westminster consensus that the chances of either of the main parties winning outright is receding. Both Labour and the Tories remain in the low to middle thirties in the polls. In this war of the weak, each is pinning their electoral hopes on the other party’s flaws.

There are those who break from the consensus that no party can win a majority. David Cameron is convinced that, as in the 1992 election campaign on which he cut his teeth, there will be a late rally for the Tories as voters minds’ are focused by the prospect of Miliband as prime minister.

The problem with Cameron’s theory is that the Tories won’t know whether he’s right until it is too late. At the moment, the polls show the Tories drawing level, but several members of the Downing Street operation had hoped that they would have a clear lead by now. They are also not making progress at a sufficient pace to secure a majority–unless something dramatic happens. Of course, events could intervene on the Tories’ behalf. If Greece left the euro, something that those in the government who are monitoring the situation reckon is a one in four chance, it would drive the economy up the agenda and make the Tories’ warnings of ‘chaos’ seem far more real. In these circumstances, it is quite conceivable that they might win outright.

But without some external trigger, the Tories are going to need something to enable them to break out of the inch-by-inch trench warfare of British politics. The Tory policy offer for the election is still being put together. Jo Johnson, the head of the No. 10 policy unit and Boris’s younger brother, is leading the work on it. Johnson, a former FT journalist, is a clever, well-organised thinker. But he is not particularly radical or ideological. However, the Tory manifesto will need things in it that can capture voters’ imaginations and win over those crucial C1 and C2 voters.

So, where will the game-changer come from? The most obvious candidate is a bold plan being hatched by Iain Duncan Smith to extend the right to buy to the 2.5 million housing association homes. At present, housing association tenants are offered very limited discounts and can only buy properties that their association has acquired since 1997. Offering them a substantial discount to buy their own homes–under right to buy, the discount can be as much as 70 per cent–would show that the Tories remain a party committed to aspiration and a property-owning democracy.

A more radical version of this scheme is being discussed, whereby every housing association property is transferred to its tenant if they have been in work for a year. The government would receive a proportion of the profits when the property is sold on. The money raised would then be used to fund the building of more social housing, which would be spread out rather than concentrated in large estates.

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However, the Tory high command does not seem that enthusiastic about Duncan Smith’s idea. One of those who will help determine what goes in the manifesto cautions that it is a ‘blunt instrument of a policy’. There is also concern that, especially in its more radical form, it would irritate people renting in the private sector who can’t afford to buy their own home. They would be excused for wondering where their reward was for having worked hard and paid rent all those years.

Such objections echo those voiced about the original Thatcher right to buy scheme. As Charles Moore, her official biographer, records, she was worried that if the discount offered to council house tenants was too great it would annoy what she called ‘our people’, who were buying their homes on the open market and at full price. But, as Thatcher came to realise, these objections were ‘narrow and unimaginative’. If the Tories were to make Duncan Smith’s policy part of their 2015 manifesto, they would electrify the election. They would show that–in the tradition of Macmillan and Thatcher–the party remains committed to expanding home ownership.

Three months from polling day, the Tories are level in the polls. This is not a bad position for incumbents to be in, and suggests that they may still be the largest party in the Commons after the election. But if the Tories are to break the stalemate that is British politics, they will need to come up with a truly brave offer. Over and above any concerns about Miliband and Balls and the economy, they must give people a positive reason to vote for them.

Dobson’s choice

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Helene Shue, 89, has lived in a farmhouse on a 41-acre spread in South Hanover Township, Pennsylvania, for more than 50 years. Her nephew, John Arndt, told the November 8, 2003 Harrisburg Patriot-News that her farm “means everything to her,” and that her only wish is to live her remaining days in the home she shared with her husband, Clayton, who died four years ago.

The property was formally deeded to the Shues in 1948, but county records listed only Mr. Shue on the deed. In 2001, that oversight triggered a bizarre chain of events that threatened to have Mrs. Shue’s home and farm sold at auction for less than six percent of its $800,000 appraised value. The controversy centered around a partial tax payment of $572 for 2001. County records confirm that all prior and subsequent tax bills have been paid on time and in full.

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Arndt told the Patriot-News that his aunt sought to pay the $572 on time, but her check was returned with a form letter from the Dauphin County tax bureau insisting on payment by certified check or money order. The letter, however, was addressed only to her late husband, and so fell through the proverbial cracks.

When the proper payment was not received by March 2002, county officials initiated proceedings to either collect the $572 delinquency or sell the property at a sheriff’s auction. A county spokesman told the November 7 Patriot-News that three certified letters (also addressed to Clayton Shue only) were returned unopened; that other correspondence sent by regular mail went unanswered; and that two notices had been posted on a farmhouse door.

“We don’t investigate who the owners of those properties are,” the spokesman told the newspaper. “We had no way of knowing whether there was a problem on their end or whether they were ignoring it.” The county does have “a very strict procedure we must follow that includes 12 notifications. We followed the letter of the law to a T.”

Yet as the Patriot-News editorialized on November 9, “the return of certified mail unopened should have triggered a personal visit by a tax official to establish that the notice of a tax sale had been received and that the owner understood the consequences, as well as the avenues of appeal and assistance….”

On September 25, Mrs. Shue’s farm, which is near land being developed for residential housing, was sold at auction for $15,000 to Middle Paxton Township developer Philip Dobson.

Arndt told the Patriot-News that he and Mrs. Shue were unaware of the sale until an anonymous caller tipped him off on the evening of November 3. He immediately hired an attorney, who three days later filed a petition in Dauphin County Court to stop the transaction. After the Patriot-News reported the story, county offices were swamped with calls urging that something be done to allow Mrs. Shue to keep her home.

Philip Dobson had no idea when he bought the property “that there was an 89-year-old widow living there. I found that out when I was reading the newspaper.” He told the November 11 Patriot-News that “under no circumstances would that lady ever be moved out of that home, no matter what happens.”

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The county chief of staff described the situation as “horrible,” and insisted that the county wanted “to do whatever we can to remedy it.” He arranged a meeting between Arndt and Dobson on November 13, at which time Dobson agreed to give back the land. The county subsequently agreed to reimburse Dobson.

Dobson and Arndt went together to tell Mrs. Shue that her house and farm were secure. “Oh, my … I can’t believe it,” she effused while hugging them both. “I won’t forget this day.”

Explaining his decision to return the land, Dobson told the November 14 Patriot-News that “it was a no-brainer, a moral issue, not a legal one. The property should be returned to her.” He added, “I got something better than a million-dollar property. I got a hug from a little old lady. That was worth more than anyone could imagine.”

Startup trend watching

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Thanks to Dragons’ Den, it’s cooler than ever to be an entrepreneur. In 2011, about 100,000 small businesses were created, and there’s no sign that number will decrease anytime soon. To be successful, though, it helps to have a great idea and an in-demand product or service.

Here are a few of the hottest niches.

Food trucks

Zane Caplansky, owner of Toronto’s Caplansky’s Delicatessen, has an interesting plan to expand his business. He wants to take it all over Canada in fully-loaded food trucks.

The food truck business, says Caplansky, works in a couple of ways. Not only does it raise awareness of his restaurant, but it’s quite profitable. “In one night we made the same amount in the truck as we did the entire day in the restaurant,’ he says. “And we had four people in the truck instead of 14 people in the restaurant.”

He’s not the only one discovering that food trucks mean big business. According to market research firm IBIS World, the food truck and street vendor industry saw annual growth of 8.4% between 2007 and 2012, and it’s estimated that by 2016 the global market will hit a whopping $1.7 billion.

Demand for food trucks is coming in part from the thriving local food movement–people looking for affordable homemade menu items. But, says Caplansky, what’s really driving it is a movement toward more specialized foods. Entrepreneurs can hit the jackpot if they can focus on a few items that no one else sells. Caplansky, who believes he has the only deli food truck in Canada, is following that formula.

Caplansky’s plans to put another truck on the road next spring and hopes to franchise the concept after that. But the best part, he says, is that it’s a business that’s a lot of fun. “People love ordering out of a truck.”

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Agriculture consultants

The massive Canadian agri-food industry feeds a market of nearly $100 billion, with about $35 billion in exports. Now it appears poised for a growth spurt. With the global population expected to exceed 9 billion by 2050, finding ways to feed everyone will be big business.

Agriculture today draws on many fields, says Glenn Yonemitsu, CEO of the Canadian Association of Management Consultants (CMC-Canada). “It not only includes farming, but an understanding of life sciences, the environment and the use of technology. For example, satellite technology can help increase crop yields by measuring temperature, moisture and sunlight, and it can help experts identify which crops would grow best in which locations.”

With this increasing complexity, demand is growing for agriculture consultants who can help agribusiness by explaining and applying the new capabilities. “Agrologists work in the whole vertical chain of the agri-food and agri-science industries–ranging from working with seeds and seed genetics to fertilizers to marketing boards to food processing and distribution.”

Get started as an agricultural consultant by becoming an agrologist, a certified professional designation conferred by provincial organizations and requiring a formal education in agriculture. The next step would be to earn a Certified Agricultural Consultant designation from CMC-Canada. Through these processes, one would establish a specialization.

“Given the size and complexity of agri-food,” says Yonemitsu, “consultants will be needed as Canadian companies compete for this new business.”

Mobile app developers

It’s no secret that app development is a budding industry, but what’s not so apparent is that the sector’s growth has barely begun. According to Comscore, 8 million Canadians owned smartphones in September 2011, representing 40% of the mobile market. There’s plenty of room for growth–and the appetite for apps will grow right along with it.

Yes, the number of apps competing for attention is massive. But so is the number of downloads. In September 2010, Apple’s iTunes App Store had more than 250,000 apps available and downloads topped 5 billion. In a July 2012 announcement, Apple said its number of apps topped 650,000. The number of downloads: 25 billion.

It’s good news for companies like Polar Mobile, which makes apps for big media companies. In business for just five years, the Toronto-based company has attracted $10 million from investors. Marlon Rodrigues, the company’s director of marketing, says anyone with skill and desire can get into app development because every industry from finance to healthcare needs apps to help staff do their day-to-day jobs.

“The big underlying trend is the consumerization of mobile,” he says. “It’s cheaper to use a phone or tablet than for companies to fund massive enterprise-level deployments.”

While entrepreneurs can launch themselves for the cost of a phone and developer account, the hard part is delivering a quality product that’s profitable. Rodrigues suggests creating a few apps to show prospective clients. “The proof is in the pudding,” he says. “How many star ratings does it have? Does it work well? You’ve got to be able to show what you can do uniquely.”

Solar panel installers

When Blair Beesley started Solsmart Energy Solutions Inc. in 2004, the demand for solar panels on residential housing was almost nil. He could barely make ends meet, but he persevered. Now, eight years later, the company is seeing double-digit year-over-year growth and staff barely get a moment to breathe.

While solar energy for homes is popular in parts of Europe especially Germany–it’s only become viable in Canada in the last few years. In 2009, the Ontario government introduced its Feed-in Tariff program, which paid solar power-generating residents up to $0.80 (reduced to $0.549 this year) for each kilowatt-hour of electricity produced, leading to a solar-power boom in the province.

 

Now, nearly 12,000 Ontarians take part in the program and, reportedly, about 22,000 residential and commercial projects are waiting to connect to the energy grid. Costs for solar panel installation have dropped 40% in the last three years, says Solsmart business development manager Andrew McCormack, and he believes demand will only increase.

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That’s good news for his industry. McCormack says a viable business needs two or three installers who understand proper anchoring and racking of the panels, and from one to three electricians to do the wiring, disconnects and meter setup. The company would also have to invest in training for quality workmanship and workplace safety, as Solsmart has done.

“Installing solar panels is a niche market nationally now–with the exception of Ontario because of the FIT program with very few companies involved,” says McCormack. “But once installing solar panels falls below the cost of electricity, it’ll be a no-brainer for entrepreneurs.”

Small business imitates life. We all have a spirit of entrepreneurship within us. When you set an achievable goal, and drive towards it with determination, imagination and an open mind, anything is possible.