Like any small town, it's always interesting to discover how people ended up here. In the dozen years I've lived in Meaford, “what brought you to Meaford?” or, “how did you end up here?” have been common questions posed to me when meeting people for the first time, and I tend to ask similar questions myself. One answer to such questions that I can't say I've heard is “I came here for a job”.
One of the most common topics of discussion and debate that I've heard in my years in Meaford has been the need to grow a business community here, the need for economic development. While in its heyday Meaford was a bustling town with industry and commerce, and of course agriculture, recent decades haven't been so kind to this and many other small towns. Highways with their fast, cheap, and easy transportation opportunities took industry away, and when industry leaves, commercial operations suffer. When highways got done stripping smaller communities of their manufacturing jobs, the information super highway, the world wide web, struck a huge blow to commerce with its cornucopia of online shopping opportunities, often at significantly lower prices. Before you know it your small town has got papered-up windows in what was once a thriving downtown, and you've got young adults faced with the reality that if they're going to find a job and earn a decent living, they'll almost certainly have to move away, at least initially.
In spite of significant efforts by the municipality, the local Chamber of Commerce, and others over the past decade, attracting economic development opportunities has proven to be a challenge. There have been small success stories here and there, and those small success stories should be celebrated in part because I find that too many are hoping for a big victory one day with a major employer moving into town.
“We need factory jobs, why isn't council bringing manufacturers to town?” or “Why are we wasting money on flower beds when what we need are good paying jobs in this town?” are typical questions and comments we hear with relative frequency. Sadly, save for a unique situation or a modern miracle, the days of hoping for a factory to move to town offering hundreds of $30 per hour jobs should be behind us. Not that it wouldn't be wonderful, but in the modern economic and social climate, it's really little more than a pipe dream.
So what are we to do? That is an excellent question that many very capable minds have been grappling with for years without much success, but I think the best we can do is continue to play on our strengths. When I think of why I moved to Meaford, my reasons are the reasons I most commonly hear when I ask people either when working on an article or simply in social conversation – it's beautiful, it's safe, it's a nice pace for living. While being beautiful and safe might not attract a manufacturer to town, beautiful and safe are highly marketable in the world of tourism. Beautiful and safe can also be attractive attributes for small business owners in niche markets who might only be able to employ two or three people, but their contributions to the greater community can be invaluable. We've seen many examples of smaller businesses establishing themselves here in Meaford, and rather than focusing on the big score that we'll likely never see, we should be spending a little more time appreciating, and attempting to attract more of these kinds of businesses to town.
That's what our local Chamber of Commerce has been rightly doing over the past several years, as has the municipality – but it's a long and frustrating road. The Chamber has helped create a positive and supportive climate for small business ventures in this town with many of its initiatives, most notably perhaps their annual Dragons' Den Meaford event. The municipality has tried to encourage investment in this community through a variety of initiatives, and in recent years they've had a particular emphasis on tourism. Growing our tourism potential is a challenge, however, particularly given our limited number of motels, and our total lack of a major hotel. It is particularly difficult to grow our winter tourism opportunities without adequate accommodation options.
A local council can't drag new businesses into town, they can't fill the empty shops, and they can't demand that a manufacturer set up shop in our empty buildings, all they can really do is create a climate that is open to and attractive to potential business opportunities, and they can act quickly when opportunities do come along.