Report: Business climate positive but workforce, internet are concerns

While the overall business climate in Mapleton is considered “very positive,” local owners are concerned about access to a skilled workforce and to high speed internet service, a local business retention and expansion report reveals.

“The overall business climate in the Township of Mapleton is very positive, with 92 per cent of participating businesses stating that the community was good or excellent as a place to do business,” the report states.

Over the past three years, it notes, the attitudes of most businesses have remained the same (80%), while 16% have become more positive and 4% have become more negative.

In the past year, the County of Wellington and its seven lower tier municipalities undertook a county-wide Business Retention and Expansion project (BRE), focusing on four sectors: agriculture, health care, manufacturing and the creative economy. The local results, as well as results of the county-wide survey, were presented to Mapleton council on July 22.

“When the Mapleton data was reviewed by staff and the Mapleton Economic Development Committee, it was found that as municipalities we need to find ways to better promote, support and strengthen our local businesses,”  Mapleton business development and marketing coordinator Crystal Ellis stated in her report.

“It is also important for the municipality to take a lead in promoting Mapleton, and finding new ways to communicate with our businesses and residents.”

On a county-wide basis, 77% of survey respondents consider Wellington a good to excellent place to do business.

“In terms of what we heard, it’s a very good report card,” said county economic development officer Jana Reichert

Ellis said the results from the BRE project reinforced the goals developed by Mapleton through its corporate strategic plan and economic development strategy. Those goals include:

– long-term planning for sustainable infrastructure;

– promote a healthy and vibrant community;

– sustain local economy – agriculture activities and business opportunities;

– retain existing businesses and help business grow;

– ensure the township has the IT capabilities for businesses to operate now and in the future;

– develop a marketing and communication plan;

– promote artistic and cultural diversity within the township;

– develop a strategy to retain youth in Mapleton; and

– develop an agriculture and local food strategy.

“Mapleton businesses expressed that they were extremely satisfied with the quality of life and services provided in Mapleton,” the report states. “In addition to the overall Wellington County findings, priorities such as infrastructure, networking, learning opportunities and communication were highlighted.”

The report notes use of the internet was described as “very important” for local businesses for promotion, buying and selling of products and services, research and administrative needs. It indicates 40% of businesses did not feel there were any barriers with access to internet, but 33% found internet speed was a concern.

The report points out that 46% of the businesses surveyed indicated they have difficulty hiring. “Recruitment was primarily done through personal networks, local media, referrals from friends or current employee, and unsolicited resumes. However, retention of employees was not a concern with 88% not having difficulty retaining employees.”

Survey participants indicated the hiring challenges were primarily due to community factors (those unique to Mapleton), such as lack of locally-available training, rather than province-wide industry factors.

Specific jobs for which suitable candidates are in short supply, according to the survey, include: (grain) elevator operators, machinery operators, agriculture sales, refrigeration mechanics, skilled furniture builders, service technicians sales associates, field technicians, truck drivers, office personnel, management, farm labourers and general labourers.

Councillor Andy Knetsch suggested local employers might have to find their answers outside the county, or even the country.

“Just thinking outside the box, there’s lot of unemployment in western Europe – people who have university plus. Could we push the agenda where we would somehow approach people within those countries, people who are looking for employment?” he asked.

Reichert replied that the Rural Ontario Institute is considering instituting such a plan on a three-county basis.

“We’re looking at sector investment profiles – part of it is where to promote the sector and where to promote the county effectively – whether its western Europe or wherever,” she explained.

“And probably (Citizenship and) Immigration Canada comes in there somewhere,” suggested Mayor Bruce Whale.

Whale said he was surprised the county report contains numerous references to “the creative economy,” noting “to me, that’s something I don’t see in the county.”

Reichert pointed out the term includes “everything from painter, to graphic designer to the architect.”

Ellis noted the county has allocated $25,000 per municipality to assist with the implementation of BRE recommendations and a number of projects are under consideration for Mapleton’s application for the funding. A business incubator, similar to the LaunchIt Minto creative business incubator recently opened in the Town of Minto, is one possibility.

Business incubators provide affordable office space, opportunities to share services and equipment and mentoring to fledgling enterprises.

“We’re looking at something with local food or agriculture as something that might be a best-fit incubator for our community. We have people with the knowledge here already,” Ellis pointed out.