July 31, 2013

Erin hops on board county business plan

As published in The Erin Advocate

With their own plans to reorganize economic development efforts still in a state of limbo, Erin councillors were glad to support an aggressive county plan that could provide local benefits.

Wellington Economic Development Officer Jana Reichert made a presentation to council on July 16 regarding the new Business Retention and Expansion (BR+E) project, one of the key activities in their Economic Development Implementation Plan.

“We know that we have high concentrations of manufacturing, agriculture, health care and the creative economy,” she said. The project will focus on these four categories, though local councils can identify others to study.

“Most of our business base, 78 per cent, is made up of employers with less than 10 employees. We need to better understand what kind of products and services they are providing, and what kind of business support services they could use to be able to expand their activities.”

She noted that this project is unique in the province and a first for Wellington County. When marketing the region to potential investors, she said it is important to know our strengths.

“What distinguishes us from other places?” she said. “We want to diversify our economy, recognizing that manufacturing and agriculture are part of our heritage, part of the economic base, but we have a lot of small businesses are doing a lot of innovative things, and we want to be able to support those as well, because that means better services for our residents.”

The Erin portion of this process was approved by council, authorizing the CAO to negotiate the services of Mary Venneman of MV Consulting to conduct 40 interviews with owners or managers of local businesses – ten in each of the four targeted sectors.

The County has set up a standardized questionnaire which will be used this fall. The data will be analyzed for a report expected next March.

The report from CAO Kathryn Ironmonger said this process will allow local business to “help set priorities for future policy decisions and economic development efforts” and that it will “help identify issues and suggest strategies for retention and expansion of existing businesses.”

The main BR+E project is funded by the Communities in Transition Program of the Ontario Ministry of Economic Development, Trade and Employment (MEDTE).

Wellington’s strategy document (available at www.wellingtonmeansbusiness.ca) says it is important to “support the growth of small to medium sized enterprises through more comprehensive business retention and expansion activities and marketing and investment attraction activities.”

The strategy says there is an opportunity for development of a stronger rural “creative economy” in Wellington County. This term refers to the broad range of jobs that are based on individuals’ talents, in fields as diverse as engineering, research, retailing, tourism and entertainment.

The strategy calls for “more support for the development of knowledge-based employment opportunities and business ventures that offer high-value impacts to the County, but also support for the creative-cultural businesses that can assist with quality of place improvement (e.g. performing arts, artisans) that will be critical in generating and sustaining opportunity within key sectors like tourism, and in attracting and retaining new skilled residents to the County.”

At the July 16 council meeting, there was also a delegation from John Gainor, who has done business in China and wanted to know if Erin is doing anything to attract Chinese investment.

“There is potential in Erin to bring Chinese investment here – there are a lot of medium-sized Chinese businesses, manufacturing, especially in the ag industry, that would like to get into the North American market.”

He told of one Chinese business person who had been interested in doing business here and bought some land, but then about three years ago had “less of a reception than he was hoping for here in the town and he left”.

“Doing business with the Chinese is certainly not easy, in fact it is very, very difficult. There’s a lot of cultural issues you have to understand before you deal with them.”

He said we don’t have any potential to export to China, since their economy is largely self-sufficient.

“If the town would like to see Chinese investment come to Erin, we need to sit down and have some sort of plan. There’s no budget for it, but something as simple as doing a flyer in English and Chinese, and having it distributed at some of the large Chinese trade shows.

“There’s a lot of Chinese manufacturers of agricultural equipment that would like to have a base in North America. Erin could possibly be that base.”

He said if components were shipped here for assembly and sales, it would give a business the advantage of have Canadian-made content in their manufacturing process.