Burns outlines Wellington County economic development efforts

ABERFOYLE – Wellington County director of economic development Jana Burns offered a snapshot of economic activity in the county to Puslinch councillors on April 3.

Burns focused on a socioeconomic overview, the county’s economic development plan, current economic development activities and other aspects which include partnerships with the township.

With a 2018 population of 7,551 Burns said Puslinch represents nine per cent of Wellington County. Burns said the number includes 2,340  families.

She noted the average age of residents is 50 which she did not consider surprising considering land and home prices. 

The greatest population category is the 55 to 75 year-old range.

“The working age population is strong right now, but it is expected to shrink incrementally over the years as well.”

While not unique, Burns suggested the average might be a bit skewed in Puslinch.

Burns added 80% are single family households which she described as stable, traditional households.

Nine percent are over 65 years old and living alone, while 22% consist of non-family households such as young single professionals.

Burns noted 93% of the population own their home.

“We have a very affluent community compared to other parts of the county. Over half have a household income greater than $100,0000.”

Burns added Puslinch is also a very educated community with 88% having a certificate, diploma or degree.

In looking at the local economy, she said 70% of the labour force is employed.

Burns noted the township provides 6,085 jobs (a 2% increase over 2017).

Top occupations for residents are trades and transport, sales, finance and manufacturing.

Burns said Puslinch is home to some of the county’s top employers including Con Cast Pipe, Schneider National, Nestlé, Capital Paving, Mammoet and Royal Canin.

In total, Burns said Puslinch has  247 businesses  – 8% of the county total.

Following the development of a three year economic development plan for the county, Burns said the focus is growing key industries and attracting talent.

She noted that currently over half of Wellington County businesses are experiencing trouble attracting enough skilled employees and not getting enough applications in general.

“Attracting talent is top of the list right now. Over half of the businesses across Wellington County are having trouble sourcing labour.”

One culprit, Burns said, is the high cost of housing.

“Costs are unattainable for young urban professionals to come into the community.”

In addition, Burns said there is a lack of rental units in Wellington County.

Planning for the future, the county will assess its employment lands, she said.

“We continue to promote Wellington County and Puslinch is part of that in social media, print and online.

Burns stressed, “We are proud of the partnership we have with township staff.”

She said Wellington County economic development fills the gap where local municipalities do not have the funds or staff to participate in certain initiatives.

She noted there are monthly meetings regarding activities happening across Wellington County and how municipalities can assist each other.

“It is important to communicate that businesses do ultimate make their own location decisions.”

She noted that if Puslinch did not have an adequate labour supply for a particular business, but a neighbouring municipality did – the entire county would benefit.

Burns said the Business Retention and Expansion (BR+E) Implementation Fund of $25,000 per municipality can be used for things such as development, Community Improvement Plans or branding exercises.

Burns said there is also the newly completed Wellington County Community Improvement Plan which augments local CIPs to rejuvenate segments of the community.

She added Puslinch is also promoted within the Wellington County Festivals and Events Guide, the local food map, Rural Romps and other county events.

On the matter of labour, Burns noted that the county has an immigration specialist looking at opportunities for acquiring talent from outside the community.

She noted the county is also working with international clients seeking to purchase businesses within Wellington County.

Burns added, “this is a good thing since there are a number of older business owners looking towards succession planning and retiring.”

“Those retirements could potentially leave gaps in our downtowns. We are developing a database of business opportunities within the county – for purchase, for succession, development land, lease and idea specs for startups … and clients can determine if there are any opportunities of interest.”

Burns noted the county was also successful in gaining funding to develop a rural transit project.

She said a public service would be developed in parallel to an employer service.

“We’ve already spoke to a few companies in Puslinch … Rural transit may be a short term solution to the housing issue,” she said.

“Attainable housing is an issue across the county. We are looking at a strategy to increase the number of houses priced at less than $400,000 across the county and increasing rental stock as well.”

She noted the upgrades to Wellington County and tourism directional signage.

Burns also spoke of the work done by Roger Brooks, an expert in assessing downtowns.

“The report was really eye-opening for many communities and many communities are now implementing recommendations as related to walkability, attractiveness and parking.”

She said the county continues to work with and support both the agricultural and business sectors.   

Councillor John Sepulis asked what work the county does to attract businesses specifically to Puslinch.

Burns said calls are regularly tracked. “We see ourselves in a good position with the land we do have available. Kitchener and Wateroo are really built out and there is a premium on dry industrial land such as for outdoor storage businesses.

Councillor Ken Roth asked about the Morriston bypass.

“There is a lot of talk out there that it might be shelved … I think this is a really important issue for economic development for the whole county.”

Roth asked if there was anything the municipality or the county could do.

He said efforts to get the bypass were based on economic issues.

“Is this the right time to offer a friendly reminder to keep this on the radar.”

Burns added the municipality should also be making for plans for the future of Morriston.

Councillor Matthew Bulmer said it was interesting to see how businesses choose to locate.

“What are the things which attract businesses here?” he asked.

Burns said she believed the common factors used in the past are changing across industries. She said factors have included the availability of serviced land, price and proximity to urban centres.

“Companies are becoming more particular about the availability of labour and higher skilled people.”

Bulmer noted that Minto and Mapleton have their own industrial parks, but all of the industrially-zoned land in Puslinch is privately held.

Burns agreed there is a difference when municipalities get into the business of purchasing, servicing and promoting industrial land.

“They are investing a lot and need dedicated personnel to “handhold” during the process.”

Burns said she considered this approach a phenomenal investment and very forward looking.

“Places such as Minto are very much seeing the benefits.”

Councillor Jessica Goyda was interested to learn there were labour challenges throughout the county and was happy to see the initiative for rural transit.