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Woolwich stays course with economic development

Woolwich’s vacant economic development and tourism officer (EDTO) position will be retained, councillors decided this week despite any numbers or measures to show the job’s worth.

Only Coun. Patrick Merlihan opposed a recommendation from director of planning Mark Pomponi to maintain the status quo. The Ward 1 councillor argued the township has failed to show any economic benefit from a position created a decade ago, though he’s asked for years to see performance metrics and financial valuations from the $115,000-a-year investment.

A report from Pomponi instead listed the functions served by the EDTO position, now vacant after the previous holder left on maternity leave and then took on another job, and cited feedback from user groups such as the Elmira and St. Jacobs BIAs.

“Various business community groups have come to rely on the position for being the point person at the municipality, with respect to a number of different issues from, event planning, BIA inquiries, business location opportunities, and as a guide through the development approvals processes,” he said in a report to council.

The EDTO provides a range of services that are of value, he argued

“It’s certainly our position that the position should continue as is.”

Merlihan, however, argued the report failed to make the case for maintaining the status quo. Instead, the township is not getting value for the money, which could be better used elsewhere.

The report is a glorified job description that inflates the duties and the value thereof, he said, likening the report to previous staff efforts to hang on to jobs council ultimately decided to eliminate.

As with previous examples, the rationale “crumbles with a little scrutiny,” he said, calling many of the functions “busy work.”

He stressed that the township has been unable to put a value on the money it’s been spending for more than 10 years, noting little of the growth Woolwich has been experiencing since before that time can be attributed to the EDTO.

“We should be able to put a value on this position,” he said, eliciting no response.

Moreover, the description shows the job is more about customer service than economics, he added.

“We’re not doing economic development. We say we’re doing economic development, but we’re not.

“We spend a lot of money on economic development” without any return, Merlihan argued, expanding that to include $50,000 a year on the Waterloo Economic Development Corporation.

“We haven’t gotten anything for that,” he said, noting there are no metrics showing the membership fees bring any value, or any money to the township.

With the township experiencing increased costs on other fronts, now is the time to eliminate the position in favour of other priorities, he argued.

That sentiment wasn’t shared by other councillors, though they offered little in the way of defence for the current spending.

Coun. Scott McMillan said the economic development officer’s work with the Elmira BIA, particularly the implementation of a community improvement plan, was an indication “there is value there.”

He did agree, however, that the township should be able to measure the value of the position.

“Moving forward, I think it’s also important that we measure the return on investment with regards to economic development. Not necessarily for one specific position, but as a whole,” he said in response to an inquiry after the meeting. “I think tonight’s report was important, because I don’t think many people are aware of everything the position of the EDTO entails. I was surprised to learn it when I began my time on council. As the conversation in council chambers continues, I think it is important that we understand the value our citizens are receiving for the investments we are making towards that development.”

Pointing to the changes in St. Jacobs following the sale of former Mercedes Corp. holdings, Coun. Fred Redekop said the BIA there has appreciated the work done by the EDO.

“They need someone to help them with economic development, with tourism.”

He noted, however, that a more detailed review of the job is in order.

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