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Tending the rural economy
Quaker Oaks, near Sebright in Kawartha Lakes. Photo: Roderick Benns.

Tending the rural economy

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Tending the rural economy
Quaker Oaks, near Sebright in Kawartha Lakes. Photo: Roderick Benns.

Although the bigger communities in Kawartha Lakes — Bobcaygeon, Fenelon Falls and Lindsay — are often seen as the focus of the local economy, globalization means that they are unlikely ever to return to the days of large-scale manufacturing facilities such as Fleetwood or Viskase.

Economic development now means nurturing smaller operations, many of them located outside our population centres. That in turn means thinking differently about how to support these rural businesses.

Rebecca Mustard, manager of economic development, Kawartha Lakes.

Rebecca Mustard, the city’s economic development manager, says that while her department still works to attract big companies, supporting small, existing business is at least as important as what she calls “smokestack-chasing.”

She’s referring to the old way of thinking about economic development. The cautionary example is the town of Racine, Wisconsin, which has a population comparable to that of Kawartha Lakes.

In 2017, Racine persuaded Taiwanese manufacturing giant Foxconn — best known for making iPhones and other Apple devices — to build a factory there. The state’s governor came up with a subsidy and tax-break package totalling almost $3 billion U.S. to attract the company, but Foxconn didn’t live up to the original terms of the agreement.

Instead, it built a smaller factory that used robotic assembly lines, ultimately creating far fewer jobs than promised.

Wooing a major company is not the only road to jobs and prosperity. Though less glamorous, supporting smaller businesses already firmly rooted in the local community and looking to expand can produce significant dividends. Those companies are also much less likely to leave town for a better offer.

Economists say that 70 per cent of new jobs come from existing businesses. Helping them and encouraging local people looking to start an enterprise — something known as “economic gardening — is a big focus of Kawartha Lakes’ economic development department.

Mustard points out that there are all kinds of people who want to start their own business. “And that’s great. We want to help provide them with a foundation that ensures they will start strong and remain viable.”

Her department runs programs like Summer Company and Starter Company Plus, providing seed money and advice for young people and new business owners of any age who are taking their first stab at entrepreneurship.

Mark Imrie of the Imrie Group, a Woodville-area company offering haulage, excavation, septic and landscaping services, is a graduate of both programs. He found the pairings with two mentors arranged by the economic development department to be particularly useful. “I got a great variety of information. We had monthly meetings and I got really good advice on running a business, marketing, and setting up a website.”

Dan Kitchen owns Make Stuff Move, located near Argyle. The company creates sets of real tools and motors for use in STEAM (science, technology, arts and math) education. The economic development department helped him with “getting the background stuff in place” to co-host an event called Invent Make Play with local non-profit Pinnquaq Association.

“They just in general seem to have an open-door policy and are always willing to share info to help grow businesses,” says Kitchen.

Not everyone has had a similarly positive experience though. One person in a northern village in Kawartha Lakes says she is disappointed that more isn’t being done for rural areas, such as “cutting development fees, streamlining building permits, or promoting skilled trades to improve the local labour force.” (The Advocate has withheld her name upon request due to her position in the community.)

Besides its programs for entrepreneurs, Mustard also points to the Arts and Heritage Trail as an example of economic development in rural areas. The trail was launched in 2017 to enhance awareness of the city’s heritage and the wide variety of museums, historic sites, artist’s studios and galleries located in Kawartha Lakes.

Online inequity

Much of the training the economic development department provides is only available online, meaning it is not equally available to all. Even before the COVID-19 outbreak, the department’s offerings for local entrepreneurs were heavily focused on webinars and other internet-based training sessions. For businesses located where high-speed internet is unavailable, though, such opportunities are completely inaccessible.

Mark and Judy Spurr own Quaker Oaks Farm near Sebright and are participants in the Arts and Heritage Trail. They say they’ve been told flat out by Bell Canada that economies of scale ensure they will never have high-speed service where they live, so the city’s online programs are out of their reach. Similar scenarios play out all over Kawartha Lakes, and even businesses that pay for high-speed access may not be any further ahead.

As reported in the July Advocate, the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission has identified a speed of 50 mbps upload and 10 Mbps download with unlimited data — often shortened to 50/10 — as the minimum for individuals and businesses to be able to take full advantage of critical online functions such as streaming high-definition video and using cloud-based software and storage.

One business owner in the northern part of the city says he can only dream of such service, pointing to wildly varying upload and download speeds at his rural location. Just one company provides internet service where he lives. While he finds his speeds at 2 a.m. are acceptable (occasionally reading 10 megabytes per second), during the day they are routinely around 1 to 2 mbps.

He sees the same thing every day after supper as people turn to video streaming for their evening’s entertainment. “My service degrades to virtually unusable … like .1 to .5 mbps, and we are frequently disconnected from the tower. This makes streaming or video-conferencing an impossibility, and even basic browsing a challenge. A speed of .1 mbps is 1 kilobyte per second … or about the speed of the dial-up modem I was using 25 years ago.”

Such poor service is a major barrier for rural businesses. In fact, this particular entrepreneur was so concerned that he would actually lose business if people were to know the challenges he faces in something as basic as completing the timely electronic transfer of documents, that the Advocate agreed not to identify him or his company.

Faster, better internet

Rural business owners may see some light at the end of the tunnel, however; the city has thrown its support behind an initiative to bring faster internet to the city in co-operation with the Eastern Ontario Regional Network (EORN). It is seeking federal and provincial support to deliver ultra-fast internet to homes and businesses in the region through a $1.6 billion public-private partnership.

“This would be a game-changer for eastern Ontario to attract and retain businesses and residents, and to compete globally over the long term,” said Kawartha Lakes mayor, Andy Letham, who chairs the Eastern Ontario Wardens’ Caucus.

A reliable, affordable high-speed network is as essential as a transportation network, business owners say. Combined with a clearer focus on the needs of the rural businesses that are the most likely to provide more local jobs through expansion, it will create a climate that ensures these smaller players can thrive without having to leave Kawartha Lakes.

Geoff Coleman lives in Fenelon Falls and has been a freelance writer since the time of the Commodore 64. When not fishing or spending time in his woodworking shop, he can usually be found behind a guitar.

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