Agriculture, manufacturing and retail are the key sectors Woolwich should court in securing economic opportunities for the township, according to the preliminary findings of a new study. The information was presented Wednesday night in Elmira at the first of two public meetings on the road to devising an economic development strategy.
“We’ve basically pulled several pieces of information together over the past few months by speaking with stakeholder groups and members of the business community,” said consultant Dave Hardy of the early indicators.
His firm, Hardy Stevenson and Associates, has been retained by the township to lead the study funded by a federal grant.
The planners identified several key industries in the region that hold promise for the economic future of Woolwich, including agriculture and agri-business, wholesale and retail trade, and manufacturing.
“We went out and talked to the different sectors and asked ‘what’s going well, and what’s going not so well?’”
explained Hardy. “It’s not the region’s plan, but the township’s plan for its own people, and the more people that we can get involved, the better.”
Wednesday’s meeting at the Woolwich Memorial Centre was a chance for the public to have its say on the direction the township should take. About 30 members of the community were out to voice their opinions on the subject, with the topics ranging from public transit and roads, to the preservation of agricultural heritage and the continued promotion of the township’s entrepreneurial spirit.
“I think it is a very, very important process to give council and staff some direction on what the community wants,” said Steve Martin of Martin’s Family Fruit Farm near St. Jacobs. Martin sits on the stakeholder committee that has been helping with the development plan for the past few months.
“If you don’t do the planning necessary for the future of the township, you leave yourself open to nothing happening. If you don’t allow for future opportunities, you can actually take a step backwards.”
While discussion was varied, Elmira’s proximity to the major urban centers of Kitchener and Waterloo was raised repeatedly, from public transit to the perpetuated myth that Elmira is “too far away” from Waterloo – an idea that needs to change if the town is to attract more tourists and businesses.
For Ward 2 Coun. Mark Bauman, one way of changing that mindset is for Woolwich to help in the transition away from our reliance on cars.
“I try to take the bus to council meetings whenever I can, but most times meetings end after the last bus,” he said.
“We need to encourage the use of the bus and make it permanent. I want to turn it into a viable transportation alternative, and not one that is subsidized.”
One idea that was tossed around was to co-market with Grand River Transit, and Hardy mused that they could introduce the marketing slogan, “The bus runs both ways.”
Robin Martin, a café owner in Elmira, voiced her concerns for not only affordable housing in the area, but that with all of this economic development and planning, Elmira and the township as a whole cannot lose sight of what makes the region unique and a great place to visit.
“We can’t get stuck in the trap of lowering our standards in the types of business that we want to attract to the area, like Kitchener did several years ago in their downtown area,” Martin said.
After a lively discussion, Laurel Davies Snyder, the township’s economic development and tourism officer, expressed optimism about the project.
“What I’ve heard is consistent with what our focus groups have been saying the past few months, and what that tells me is that we’re hitting all the key points,” she explained. “It’s important to go beyond statistics. We need these sessions to dig down below the stats and find out what’s going on in the township.
“Look at all these people who are still here talking and making connections,” she said, pointing to the 10 to 15 people who remained after the meeting to continue their discussions. “I love that.”
The next public meeting will be held on Jan. 20 at 7 p.m. at the WMC. Contact Davies Snyder at the township for more information or to become involved.