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Business owners more optimistic this year: report

We may not be in a financial renaissance, but Ontario business owners indicate we’re a long way from the 2008 crash that crippled the global economy.

Mercedes Corp. president Marcus Shantz is hoping for a better 2014, after the blaze at the St. Jacobs Farmers’ Market led to a bump in the village’s economy.[Will Sloan / The Observer]
Mercedes Corp. president Marcus Shantz is hoping for a better 2014, after the blaze at the St. Jacobs Farmers’ Market led to a bump in the village’s economy. [Will Sloan / The Observer]
A survey released last week by the Ontario Chamber of Commerce and Leger Marketing shows that businesses are more confident in the Ontario economy compared to this time last year. In addition, 74 per cent of businesses are comfortable in their economic outlook, a slight boost from last year.

“I think there’s a renewed sense of optimism in the manufacturing sector,” said Art Sinclair, vice-president of the Kitchener-Waterloo Chamber of Commerce. Among the positive factors, Sinclair cites the gradual strengthening of the American market on which Ontario businesses depend for exports, and what he sees as an upswing in the manufacturing sector.

“I think it’s exports to the U.S., but it’s also that a lot of manufacturing capacity that left for foreign jurisdictions in the last ten years are starting to return.” While there’s nothing specific to the region yet, “I think there’s a sense that manufacturing is going to recover based on some manufacturers that went offshore that are looking to come back. There seems to be a global sense of that.”

He adds that the explosion in population throughout the region (particularly Woolwich) is another encouraging sign. “You have people moving in, and that’s more customers regardless of what industry you’re in.”

And while Blackberry, the crown jewel of the area’s IT sector, continues to downsize, Sinclair suggests that the momentum the company spawned can now exist independent of the company itself.

“A good indicator is housing prices across the region, which have remained pretty stable over the last years with the downsizing,” he said. “And we’ve always taken the position that because of the ecosystem we have here, and the number of startup businesses in IT, a number of Blackberry employees could be absorbed by existing businesses here in Waterloo Region.

“It seems to be pretty stable. With the downsizing of Blackberry, the economy hasn’t taken a severe jolt.”

While optimism is on the rise, the number of Ontario businesses confident in the province’s economy has risen to only 48 per cent. In rural Ontario, the recent closures of Kellogg’s and Heinz plants in London and Leamington have sent a troubling signal to Ontario’s agriculture and manufacturing industries. “How significant the closures will be on the southern Ontario farm economy? I think there are concerns about that,” said Sinclair.

One area of the region that isn’t in an upswing is St. Jacobs, where businesses still deal with the fire that destroyed the St. Jacobs Market on Labour Day last year.

“That fire did have a ripple effect,” said Marcus Shantz, president of Mercedes Corp. “I think through the fall, a lot of the tourism-oriented businesses experienced a decline, and up to that point they’d been going pretty well.”

With a temporary structure in place at the market site, many of the vendors are back to work on Thursdays and Saturdays. “I would say we’re upbeat about redeveloping that businesses, and the vendors and tenants we have there are also positive about it. But for that reason, it’s been a challenging year.

The winter months are always a slow time in the tourist town, with this year a particularly extreme example. “At this time of year, I think people need the winter to end, because the results of those tourism-oriented businesses vary according to the weather.”

Shantz noted that one recovery strategy has been developing other business opportunities in the village aside from tourism, including redeveloping buildings for office space. “We’ve got more interest coming in for small, creative office companies. That’s not us backing away from tourism and retail, but it’s sort of rebalancing the base so you’re not just relying on one use.

“That’s brought a lot of workers into town who eat at the restaurants and shop at the stores. And there are a lot of attractive things about St. Jacobs – you have the amenities, you have the river, and it’s very accessible. Commuter bus service has helped, and being in close proximity to some of the tech offices and the University of Waterloo has helped.”

As for the St. Jacobs Farmers’ Market, it may be down but it’s far from out. “I think there are a lot of reasons to be optimistic. We’re getting a lot of support from the community for redeveloping the market. … In the dead of winter, it can be hard for some of us to have that perspective.”

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