Muskoka’s battered economy will not be getting help from a southern Ontario job creation fund.
Bracebridge Mayor Graydon Smith made the revelation at a council meeting on Wednesday, Aug. 29, just one day after the province decided to officially exclude Muskoka from the boundaries of the Southwest Ontario Development Fund. Since April, Smith and town staff have fought to get Muskoka included in that fund, which the province set up in November to mirror a similar fund that was established in eastern Ontario about a decade ago.
Most recently, Smith had tried to press the issue of Muskoka’s inclusion with Economic Development and Innovation Minister Brad Duguid during the Association of Municipalities Ontario (AMO) conference in mid-August.
“It’s my understanding that Bill 11, which contained the creation of those funds, and the extension of the eastern fund, was passed yesterday with no change to the boundaries,” Smith said on Wednesday.
Though the bill passed in Queen’s Park by a vote of 55-32, Smith said Muskoka may still have a chance of getting its needs heard by the province.
“I spoke with the minister regarding the boundaries and he assured that there may be … opportunity to discuss those boundaries in the future,” he said. “Certainly we will hold the minister to the opportunity to have that conversation, because it is important for Muskoka, and it is important for Bracebridge.”
The Southwest Ontario Development Fund’s boundaries extend only as far north as Simcoe County. To the east of Muskoka, Haliburton County is included in the Eastern Ontario Development Fund, while Parry Sound is included in the Northern Ontario Heritage Fund.
Muskoka was removed from the Northern Ontario Heritage Fund in 2004. Aside from Muskoka, only Ottawa and the Greater Toronto Area are excluded from provincial economic development zones.
Since the economic downturn, Muskoka’s economy has been left in shambles. The Town of Bracebridge has documented the loss of over 1,000 local jobs over the past decade as several large employers shut down or drastically reduced their staffing levels.
Social assistance in the area has risen by 90 per cent in that same period, and about 40 per cent of Muskoka households currently make less than $30,000 each year. In 2011, the Muskoka-Kawartha region posted the second-highest unemployment rate in the province, just following Windsor-Sarnia.
Despite the setback, Smith said the AMO conference was a valuable opportunity to get Muskoka’s concerns heard by influential figures at the provincial level.
“It was a great opportunity to have these conversations, to have this dialogue, and get Bracebridge elevated on the radar of municipal officials, and we look forward to doing that again next year,” he said.
“We just hope we’ll carry a slightly smaller bag of problems with us when we go, and that some of the things we discussed this year will be resolved.”