Some councillors expressed concern as the hired guns paid $50,000 to prepare the County’s economic development strategy presented their report to County councillors April 12 – endorsing the final document April 26.

Strexer Harrop Consulting Group (SHCG) did the work for director of economic development Scott Ovell and the County. They paid $42,300 plus HST from Safe Restart Funds.

After SHCG’s Tonya Kraan presented her firm’s work, Coun. Murray Fearrey commented while it was a “very extensive report … I don’t think there’s hardly anything there that any of us around this table didn’t already know.”

Some of the highlights in the report included recurring themes, such as employers having a hard time finding workers, succession planning, the need for all four municipalities to standardize policies and procedures, a call for public transit and support for businesses and entrepreneurs.

Kraan said when it comes to residents, there is a demand for more apartments, year-round recreational opportunities, such as an indoor swimming pool, increased business hours in the Highlands, and educating employers about the need to pay a living wage as well as a shift to a greener economy.

This sparked Coun. Bob Carter to comment that it costs more to live in the Highlands than cities. Yet, “it seems an awful lot of asks from the businesses. Get us apartments so we can hire more staff … what are the businesses willing to do? Are the businesses willing to pay more than minimum wage?” He added if paying minimum wage and offering seasonal jobs, how can employers expect employees to afford apartments and the cost of living in the County.

Kraan said as part of their work, they have put together information on what other employers across the broader region are paying their workers. She said the plan will be for Ovell to attend AGMs of various employer groups and share data on average wages, “not to shame anyone, but show there is room for improvement.” She said pay for agricultural and tourism jobs, in particular, are well below average in the Highlands.

Fearrey said he would like someone to talk to high school graduates about going into the trades. “I think that’s a huge opportunity locally. It hasn’t been done and I don’t know why it’s not being done, but I’m looking to our staff to initiate that.”

He also took exception to some of the suggestions, such as businesses expanding hours, when they have already said they don’t have enough staff.

“These things are easy to talk about, but they’re not easy to solve…same as transportation. We know about it and we’re trying to figure out how to do it but we just haven’t found it yet.”

Ovell told council, “we tried to tie the strategy and the timelines to your term in council so we can make this economic development journey together.” He added there were key performance indicators towards an action plan “to ensure this isn’t a document that sits on a shelf.”

Coun. Jennifer Dailloux also noted a mix of low-hanging fruit and big-ticket items and sought direction.

Kraan said one “big quick hit” would be convincing County residents it is okay to have basement apartments. She said people hear horror stories, but not positive stories, of good tenants, such as nurses and lab technicians, leasing apartments.

“We want to do those quick wins. Some of those communications tactics are quick wins. Big ticket items need to be invested in, but we don’t want you to sit on your thumbs.”

Ovell added he and director of tourism, Tracie Bertrand now have a starting point and can work with council towards achieving its desired goals.

He added objectives in the next 18 months are to help employers fill current and future job vacancies by increasing housing availability. He said they will be able to do that through a number of marketing initiatives, including supporting the townships with their outreach to developers and looking to connect employers with the green economy, which is a strong driver for the younger workforce.

Other goals include bumping up communication, the need for secondary suites, and showcasing the Highlands as an environmental, social and governance leader.

Coun. Cec Ryall felt they had received consolidated direction across the County to make things happen.” He said the first step was hiring Ovell, and the second now having an economic development strategy.

You can see the entire plan on the April 12 County agenda.