WINCHESTER – The United Counties of Stormont, Dundas and Glengarry (SD&G) unveiled their community improvement plan (CIP) for public consultation at the North Dundas municipal office Thurs., March 1, and there was a lot to like for local business owners.

Building on the success of the CIP in North Dundas, which has been in place since 2013, Tim Simpson, CAO for SD&G, began the breakfast meeting by outlining the overarching goal of the program: to incentivize local owners to invest in their properties/businesses in order to encourage economic growth, job creation and expand tourism markets.

The new regional plan was approved for $100,000 in the 2018 budget and will work in conjunction with the local CIPs that are currently in place in three of the six municipalities. The counties will also work with South Dundas, North Stormont and South Glengarry to develop their own plans so they can have access to funding from the upper-tier government.

The public consultation meeting is vital for the counties as there are still many grey areas to be decided and the counties want the program, once launched, to be as straightforward as possible.

Simpson pointed out that the counties and municipalities have been in constant communication to ensure everyone is on the same page and that there is one distinct plan in place.

“It will be consistent across the whole county. So there won’t be a county plan per se or a local plan, it will all be one plan. The reason we’re doing that is we want to make sure that it’s as easy to understand as possible, the application forms are understandable and easy, there’s one point of contact and it’s as efficient as we can make it,” he said.

This addresses the longstanding plea from local business owners for a cohesive strategy from the counties to help accelerate local economic development and tourism.

According to Simpson, “council approved in 2017 an economic development strategy and one of the main pillars was that we need to do a better job of regional promotion and investment and this is one way that we can do that and to get dollars flowing back into the community.”

The improvement plan has been a success locally as North Dundas economic development officer Stephen Mann showcased O’Farrell’s, Suttons and Main Street Clothing as a few examples. The North Dundas CIP was refreshed and approved by council for 2018 with Mann noting that, “it’s open to all of North Dundas now from day one rather than being phased in over a five year period. So whether you’re in the downtown core or on a country road, you can all apply.”

North Dundas Mayor Eric Duncan thinks the interest free loans are a vital tool for local businesses and money well spent.

“The only money it costs us is in the interest that we lose on that money out, but the return on investment we get that allows a business to do a landscaping improvement, to fix the inside of a building, or to add an HVAC system really helps. It does create a complexity… loans are very helpful to have because financing a loan from banks and lenders can be difficult,” said Duncan.

SD&G identified four primary streams for funding: agricultural value-add, Brownfield re-development, re-use of commercial, institutional, and industrial buildings and development of roofed accommodations

Agriculture value adds would encourage and promote agri-tourism, farm-gate sales, building and signage enhancements and landscaping improvements. Brownfields are especially numerous in the area with many villages once boasting large industrial buildings like the Cornwall Mill site or multiple gas stations that now sit either abandoned or undeveloped in prime locations. The prospect of a major financial investment to clean the site is the primary factor that inhibits redevelopment. Simpson hopes the program will provide those property owners with the incentive to at least take the first step.

“At that point you’ll know whether or not it’s financially feasible to actually keep going… Or they may say ‘well it’s going cost a million dollars to clean this site up we can’t do it.’ I don’t view that as money spent for naught. At least they know,” he said. 

The fourth stream speaks directly to the lack of accommodations like bed and breakfasts, small hotels or other innovative places to stay in the area for tourists.

“If we can get more people to stay in the county they’re more likely to spend more money locally versus staying in Cornwall,” said Simpson.

The federal government has made a major push championing Canada for its rural tourism and wild frontier image especially during the Canada 150 push last year. Annette Angus, owner of Terrace Green Bed and Breakfast in Winchester drove the point home.

“Our business was up 50 per cent last year so I’m hoping the trend will continue. I’ve already noticed this year that we’re up again. There is a shortage. So please consider it if you have extra rooms. If they can’t find anywhere to stay, they’re not going to come. If they stay in the area I send them to local restaurants and stores, they shop locally,” she said.

For those that are worried funding decisions will now be made by the united counties rather than local municipalities, Simpson quashed those fears quickly.

“North Dundas council is still going to determine local priorities and what they want to fund and how much they want to fund. For the regional initiatives that happen not only here in North Dundas, but everywhere else, county council is going to determine how much money and what the priorities are. Even though there is one plan, they still retain that autonomy,” he said

So, who funds what? Local municipalities do not fund agricultural initiatives or Brownfields. Similarly, the county won’t be funding main street type façade improvements that are typically found in local plans. However, there may still be areas that overlap, but those will be reviewed on a case-by-case basis.

Simpson hopes to have the improvement plan ready to present to counties council this spring and would like to start awarding money by the summer. It’s an ambitious timeline with quite a bit of work to be done, including determining eligibility criteria, the intake process, how applications are reviewed and maximum dollar amounts for each project.

Regardless, business owners were enthusiastic that the counties may finally be presenting a united message to attract tourists and enhance business opportunities and development. Simpson knows the value of investing local money back into the community.

“Based on our research and what’s happening locally and provincewide, the return on investment for every dollar put in by either the local municipality or the region, it’s about a 10 to one return. So for every dollar that’s going into the private sector, there’s 10 dollars of reinvestment coming in and that’s not only what the business owner’s putting in, that’s the total in terms of creating jobs, taxation, and creating economic wealth. So 10 to one is a really good investment in terms of getting public or tax dollars out there,” he said.

The public consultations wrap up on Thurs., March 8 and business owners can also fill out the survey online on the counties website.