MUSKOKA – In light of the District of Muskoka services review, the Huntsville Forester is running a series of information pieces to help explain the role of upper and lower tier governments. This week’s focus is on economic development.
There are several players when it comes to economic development in Muskoka but the area municipalities are responsible for leading the charge.
Marg French, commissioner of planning and economic development for the District of Muskoka, said economic development is divided between the upper and lower tiers of government in Muskoka but it is municipalities such as Huntsville and Lake of Bays that have the most responsibility.
The area municipalities focus on business attraction and retention where the primary role of the district, as far as economic development is concerned, is tourism marketing and promotion, said French.
And the district supports tourism marketing and promotion through the Muskoka Tourism Marketing Agency.
The district created Muskoka Tourism as a founding financial contributor in 1985 and has funded the non-profit, independent corporation since then, said French. The district budget for Muskoka Tourism in 2012 is $301,945. Two district councillors sit on the Muskoka Tourism board.
Another of the district’s roles is to provide region wide economic development information such as population and economic indicator statistics.
The district also fields inquiries from individuals who may want to open a business in the region and directs such inquires to the appropriate area municipality.
District council, on which mayors and councillors from each area municipality sit, can also approve special economic development programs, said French.
For example, the area municipalities wanted to pursue a business retention and expansion program. The district was able to buy the program at a lower price than it would have cost each of the area municipalities to buy it individually, and the district then made the program available to any municipality that wanted it.
Council also approved seed funding for a Creative Muskoka project geared at enhancing the creative economy in the region.
“But generally, most economic development is undertaken at the area municipal level,” said French.
Kelly Pender, chief administrative officer for the town of Huntsville, said the town’s economic development department focuses on enhancing both business and community.
The mandate of the department is to support the creation of an atmosphere conducive to attracting, promoting and marketing economic development opportunities to create jobs, increase the municipal tax base, support existing businesses and encourage support marketing event tourism.
The economic development officer’s primary role is largely to act as a facilitator for new or existing businesses, said Pender.
For example, he said, if there is a new business coming to town, the economic development officer will work with the business to find a suitable site and investigate zoning or planning questions. He would also work with existing businesses and the chamber of commerce to enhance relationships within the municipality.
Much of those duties are geared toward business retention and expansion.
Grant applications are another major aspect of the town’s economic development role. Funding for G8 summit infrastructure, Ontario Trillium Foundation grants and applications for Memorial Park project funding, for example, were all funneled through the economic development office, said Pender.
The department also facilitates grants of municipal funds to community groups through the small community grants program.
John Finley, economic development and grants officer for the town, said one of the most important roles his department has is to facilitate the development of a community master plan, which Huntsville did just before the G8 summit.
“Those plans dictate what economic development activities you will promote,” said Finley. “And, the most important thing, they will prepare you to be ready for any senior-level government funding opportunities.”
Stefan Szczerbak, planner for the Township of Lake of Bays, said the township does not have a strong economic development role nor does it have a dedicated economic development officer. Minor economic development responsibilities are dealt with by the planning department.
But the township is working to improve its economic development presence, he said.
The township has an economic development intern on an eight-month contract. The position is funded through a FedNor grant.
The intern is meeting with the business communities in Lake of Bays to find out what the township can do to support existing businesses and attract more. Szczerbak said the goal is to get township council and staff thinking about economic development and provide the township with a rough game plan of how to proceed with it in future.
“It’s an impossible task to deal with in eight months, but we’re definitely doing what we can with the resources we have available,” he said.
It is all in an effort to support year-round economic sustainability in Lake of Bays.
“Being a small, rural municipality, a lot of these small communities really depend on the tourists. Tourism is our No.1 business and we’re trying to understand what businesses may need for shoulder or winter seasons, what we can do to bring businesses in,” he said. “And, of course, if we bring a business in, that means jobs and it brings dollars into the community.”