During 2018, the rural economic development team has been talking to local business about their unique needs and opportunities. The initiative, known as a business retention + expansion (BR+E) study is an action oriented and community-based approach to economic development.
Funding for this project was provided in part by the Province of Ontario through the Rural Economic Development (RED) fund.
The BR+E plan focuses on nurturing existing businesses, and prioritizing community efforts, allowing us to foster economic development by learning more about challenges and opportunities to retaining and growing businesses and developing action plans to address these concerns as part of the community’s economic development strategy.
Rural Oxford Economic Development Corporation (ROEDC) has focused this 2018 BR+E on the Agri-business, Food Processing, Logistics, and Manufacturing business sectors across Rural Oxford. As the largest sectors for employment in our community, it is critical that we understand our strengths and opportunities in an ever changing economic landscape.
According to Bernia Wheaton who is the economic development specialist for the rural townships, “Conducting a BR+E study gives us the opportunity to check in with our business community on a wide range of pertinent issues.”
Nancy Orr who was contract to coordinate the study points to some exciting outcomes. “What we learned is that Rural Oxford has a healthy, economic diversity with the primary market for most businesses being regional (38%) or international (29%), while 18% serve a primarily local market.
We were also please to find that a significant majority (91%) of the businesses surveyed have a good or excellent impression of the community as a place to do businesses. These are promising results for a rural community.”
The Board of Directors that govern the economic development organization was pleased to hear that 59% of the businesses surveyed reported plans to expand within the next 18 months. In doing so, they expect increases in workforce, floor space, employee training, and process improvements. In one case, a business owner indicated that, “Expansion will lead to an additional 10-15 people per year for the foreseeable future.” It’s also encouraging to note thatnone of the businesses interviewed have plans to close, downsize, or sell.
Don McKay chairs the board of directors and is encouraged by the sampling of results in this study. “Our goal is to build strong, vibrant, caring communities and we are encouraged to see growth across all four key industry sectors. We look forward to supporting these businesses along this journey.”
When asked about thecommunity’s top advantages, respondents most often listed its central location, the quality of rural life, proximity to their suppliers and customers, along with support from the community as benefits to doing business in Rural Oxford. As for drawbacks, respondents cited a lack of qualified workforce, unsatisfactory internet and cell service, distance to larger centres / transportation, and insufficient infrastructure such as natural gas and 3-phase power.
Out of the dozens of pages of data, we learned that while Rural Oxford is a thriving and prosperous place to do business, there is still much work to be done to support our businesses. The volunteer leadership team for this project met for a day to pour through the confidential responses and identify the key priorities that need addressing.
The first priority focuses on the development of a qualified workforce to meet the current and growing needs of business. Many of the data points collected during this BR+E project lead to the identification of challenges with the lack of an adequate supply of an available qualified workforce. This is not an isolated or localized priority, as workforce shortages have been a focus of neighbouring municipalities and regional organizations. Workforce and workforce planning are a key building block to a sustainable business community and require short term and long-term strategies.
Supporting adequate infrastructure is the second priority. Infrastructure addresses items including internet, cellular phone coverage, 3-phase power, access to adequate natural gas, and the impact of half load roadways during the spring thaw. Although several of these are not in the complete control of municipalities, they offer such an immense impact, in particular with regard to expansion preparedness and planned business growth, the Rural Oxford EDC will need to provide as much advocacy, partnership, and facilitation as possible to ensure the stage is set for continued success.
Business Support services are the final of the three BR+E priorities. Business Support Services covers a wide range of programs and offerings to provide the needed supports for businesses to stay progressive and competitive. These include the reduction of red tape surrounding the planning and permitting process, the increased awareness of local and provincial business services, export development support, as well as the identification of suitable land and buildings for growth and expansion.
According to Wheaton, “this report will be the basis for economic development programs and activities over the next three years. The priorities outlined in this report will be the focus of our initiatives as we work to build a thriving, resilient community.”
The complete report can be read HERE.
The Rural Oxford EDC sends out a special thank you to each business who participated in this critical gathering of information, recognizing that this input will lead to better service and a resilient rural economy.