Lanark County economic development strategy complete, now the work begins
by Nathan Rudyk
Last Friday Lanark County held an appreciation lunch at its Perth Council Chambers for about 30 entrepreneurs, local politicians and expert staff from municipal and provincial departments. This Leadership Team contributed to our region’s first-ever comprehensive economic development strategy and action plan. It did so as rural Canada garners a lot of attention as a potentially powerful new source of wealth creation – something we’ve witnessed first-hand with the rapid trajectory of Canopy Growth Corp. in Smiths Falls.
At the fderal level, 2018 promises to be the year agricultural and food policy is front and centre in national economic development goals. Last February, the federal Advisory Council on Economic Growth named agriculture as one of eight high-potential sectors, with a challenge to boost Canada’s agri-food exports from $55 billion to $75 billion by 2025. Approaches to reach that goal include encouraging rotation into higher-value protein-rich crops to feed the world’s growing population, and broadband-enabled farming practices that produce more yield on the same land using less chemicals.
Provincially, the Ontario Federation of Agriculture (OFA) recommends that as the government in Queen’s Park develops its 2018 budget, it adopt policies that more evenly distribute economic development and population growth across the province to ease urban congestion and soaring home prices. Infrastructure investments like widespread broadband, access to affordable energy with natural gas and increased social infrastructure including schools and medical care will attract new business and residents to rural regions according to the OFA.
As a dramatic example of the transformative power of agri-business, Lanark County is home to the Canopy Growth diversified cannabis wealth machine. The once-empty parking lot at the former Hershey Chocolate factory now hosts vehicles from among 360 employees at the world’s most valuable publicly traded, industry-leading marijuana company. Founded in 2014, Canopy Growth has rocketed to become Smiths Falls’ largest employer, and boasts a market capitalization north of $6 billion. Last week the company added to its expansion cash with the sale of $200.7 million worth of new shares in a first-ever underwriting for a pot stock led by a Canadian bank (BMO Capital Markets).
With all of this momentum, Lanark County is poised, to “Skate to where the puck is going, not where it has been”, as Walter Gretzky famously said to his son Wayne. Led by Valley Heartland Regional Economic Development Officer and Pakenham resident Stacie Lloyd, the extensive action plan for 2018-2020 includes plans for a specific agri-food/agri-business strategy, improving fixed and mobile broadband infrastructure and developing family and business-friendly land use planning policies.
Our county’s new economic development strategy recognizes other sectors including manufacturing and information communications technology, tourism and recreation, arts and entertainment, trades and construction, and healthcare.
Here in Mississippi Mills, healthcare employment at our hospital and long-term care facilities is taking on increasing importance. But as a community we need to be cautious about government-funded economic activity that can exist, or not, at the stroke of a distant bureaucrat’s pen and/or is tied to a temporary demographic phenomenon.
I am much more excited about local businesses creating wealth and jobs, and paying versus distributing tax money. In the agri-business sector, that includes value-added food processing companies like Hummingbird Chocolate Maker and Equator Coffee Roasters, tourist destination businesses like Fulton’s Pancake House and Sugar Bush and Cedar Hill Christmas Tree Farm, Community Shared Agriculture (CSA) operations like Rock-N-Horse Farm and Indian Creek Orchard Gardens, and multi-generational farms like the Lowry family’s 650-acre Penlow (automated dairy) Farms and Hudson’s Farm Fresh vegetable operation.
As one of several Leadership Team volunteers who served on the “data working group”, I am also very encouraged by statistics about Lanark County that show significant growth potential in both arts and entertainment, and construction and trades. As we know in Mississippi Mills, your favourite carpenter can easily turn out to be a fine musician and your favourite sculptor might also run the construction company that built your home.
While the vast majority of these businesses have one to a handful of employees, part of Lanark County’s new economic development strategy includes plans for business retention and expansion, and workforce development. The idea here is that we systematically map our businesses and talent, offer entrepreneurs mentorship and training to help them expand and hire new employees, and ensure we are attracting employees with the requisite skill-sets.
Overall, my observation is that unlike some less fortunate rural communities, Lanark County has a credible path to sustainable prosperity, and that businesses in Mississippi Mills will be able to take advantage of many lucrative economic development initiatives.
Like anything in the realm of economic development and innovation, at their core, all of these initiatives are people-driven. The strategy is in place, now the work to make it real begins. I’d urge local entrepreneurs to engage with, guide and volunteer for County-driven opportunities to make more business happen over the next two years.
Nathan Rudyk is Storyteller-in-Chief of Almonte-based market2world communications inc.