By Francis Baker
News Express Staff
Developing an online business directory, cultural master plan, community investment profile, business retention program, marketing strategy and an economic-development focused online presence are the short-term recommendations in a new Wellington County economic development strategic plan.
The draft plan was presented to county council at the Nov. 29 meeting by Lauren Millier of the consultants who developed it in conjunction with county economic development reps.
A "fairly thorough background review," stakeholder consultation, visioning session, focus groups and consultations with mayors, CAOs, business reps and economic development staff helped produce the plan. About 550 people were involved in preliminary discussions, Millier said - which shows just how engaged the community is in economic development.
The six short term recommendations develop out of four main goals:
• Increasing the competitiveness and success of Wellington businesses - by providing a centralized economic development resource, assessing infrastructure requirements, and developing an investment and community profile.
• Building awareness of the county's economic development goals - through a marketing strategy, new online presence, creative economy handbook, and improving signage in the county.
• Creating a community where people want to live and entrepreneurs want to do business, by fostering a culture that helps entrepreneurs - by creating a master directory of business services, promoting business support programs, supporting local job creation efforts, preparing a county cultural master plan and asset map, and identifying the top 25 companies in the county.
• Developing lasting partnerships by promoting a collective understanding of the role resource and infrastructure investments play in community prosperity - through a workforce development and attraction strategy, enhancing connections between business and education, attracting post-secondary planning to the county, and developing an agricultural sector strategy.
An analysis of strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats picked out factors like the lack of regional business retention, the lack of serviced employment land, aging demographics, increased traffic congestion and changing provincial policies, balanced against positives like the potential for developing tourism and agriculture, partnerships and incentives, a strong agricultural base, natural and cultural heritage, and developing a creative rural economy.
The "creative economy" is something the county should really look at, Millier said.
"Just because you're rural doesn't mean you don't have a significant range of opportunity to drive growth," she said.
The strategic plan will be designed with ways to measure performance, Millier said in response to councillor questions - but it's more complicated than measuring jobs and tax assessment.
The components of economic development - business investment, a thriving community that's engaged, volunteering, council access - are all things that show the type of community people live in, and relate to "quality of life" that can also be hard to pin down, she said.
"There are different types of performance model," she said. "You should be able to say if I do this, what are my outcomes, and that's what you're looking at."
Warden Chris White said the county can no longer be secure in its position in the modern world - the global economy, for example, is a real threat to the prosperity of the county and to keeping the area prosperous.
"I think doing nothing is a much more dangerous road," he said. "But we absolutely have to get measurable."
Economic development committee chair George Bridge used the example of Minto, where he's mayor, which used surveys to quantify economic development.
After three years of economic development, Minto was able to generate 81 new jobs, and vacancy rates in the Harriston downtown dropped from 18 to 12 percent, for example.