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A good buy? Not unless you know what you’re getting

Woolwich council’s endorsement this week of a new Waterloo Region economic development plan is troubling on a number of fronts.

Foremost is the fact the proposal is long on platitudes and completely absent of any numbers to justify the township’s rush to commit $160,000 over the next four years.

It’s possible the effort, spearheaded by a new venture called the Waterloo Region Economic Development Corporation, is a good idea, but nothing in the report given to councillors suggests this is a worthwhile investment. Proof? There is none.

As Coun. Patrick Merlihan noted, if the report under consideration was a business plan the region was taking to a bank, there’s little reason to believe a loan would be forthcoming. In this case, a $2-million loan, the total annual contribution of the seven municipalities plus the region’s share when the full bill comes due in 2017. There’s nothing in the document, compiled by the chief administrative officers of each of the eight municipalities, that demonstrates there will be a single benefit. No indication, let alone assurances, that the money spent will be returned to municipal coffers in the form of new taxes.

At the very minimum, the residents footing the bill for this unproven exercise have to be guaranteed a return on their investment. Not some nebulous benefit, but tangible, cash benefits.

For Woolwich, that would mean replacing the $25,000 the township is on the hook for this year, $35,000 next year and $50,000 in each of 2017 and 2018. Not surprisingly, the topic wasn’t even broached by those councillors who supported the scheme sight unseen.

While the report spoke of measuring efficacy and metrics, no specifics were offered. That some councillors approved the plan under those circumstances says they’ve learned nothing from Woolwich’s own multi-year foray into economic development, where hundreds of thousands of dollars have been spent to little avail. Locally, too, there have been no numbers to support the money spent, let alone to justify the continued expenditures. To the chagrin of residents concerned about accountability from the township, there was no mention of any of that from those councillors prepared to spend yet more money … again without any assurances.

All of this comes as Woolwich can already expect the ballyhooed industrial growth simply by virtue of having some of the last available land – as with the region, there’s no shortage of opportunities today or tomorrow.

Blindly dumping money into unproven schemes is not a habit citizens would care to encourage in the township’s administration. The same applies at the regional level, where taxpayers are also on the hook for the local share of the $900,000 a year council there is prepared to gamble on an unsubstantiated venture.

Wellesley residents, whose council has also endorsed the plan without any supporting documentation, can take some consolation in the fact that their direct costs will be $5,000 this year, ramping up to $20,000 by full rollout in two years’ time. Having avoided taking on an ersatz economic development office of its own, and not overly blessed with business opportunities, Wellesley is playing a relatively small bet for a potential gain. Even a modest one would warrant the move. Still, council there has fallen victim to the same vague generalizations and banalities – the worst kind of rationalization for economic development – that has ensnared Woolwich and the other municipalities, none of whom has questioned the motives or conclusions of those selling a pig in a poke.

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