The economic development agency for Almaguin received supportive and encouraging words from Powassan Mayor Peter McIsaac as it continues to provide services to businesses in the Almaguin Highlands.
The Almaguin Community Economic Development ends its second year of operations in October.
But McIsaac told Dave Gray, the head of ACED, that about a year-and-a-half of providing those services has taken place during a world pandemic where COVID-19 changed how business, organizations and ordinary people carry on with their daily lives.
Gray appeared via Zoom at the most recent Powassan council meeting to explain the value ACED provides to the regional municipalities.
At an earlier meeting, Coun. Debbie Piekarski wanted to know if it was worthwhile for Powassan to remain a member with ACED or if it should follow Magnetawan and leave the organization after the third year.
McIsaac is a strong supporter of ACED and repeated an earlier claim at the last council meeting that about 20 per cent of time and money from ACED goes to Powassan businesses.
Coun. Dave Britton also recognized the tough times ACED has faced as it tries to carry out business while COVID-19 is still around.
Gray told council ACED normally develops its partner relationships in face-to-face meetings “but social distancing made (that) challenging compared to what we've been used to.
“The face-to-face meetings are quite crucial in a relationship development process,” Gray said.
“It's challenging to carry out the vision of the economic development programs through zoom meetings or phone calls. It's a lot easier to sell initiatives face-to-face.”
Gray said before ACED was formed, he had spent years serving the communities in the southern half of the Almaguin Highlands.
Economic development didn't just happen and Gray said it took “years to fully get that increased presence out there and get businesses to know to call the department when they faced challenges that threatened their business.”
In response to a question from Britton on what the member municipalities can expect from ACED in a post COVID environment, Gray said “we'll be able to interact more once again.”
“We'll be keeping our ears to the ground for support opportunities that help businesses,” he said.
“Building on the presence we've established so far will be crucial to the ongoing growth of the program.”
Gray said ACED staff have also been working with municipal employees and have helped several of the communities on applications that involved municipal facilities upgrades.
Gray told Powassan council what led to confusion on what was expected of ACED was the notion that it would take the lead on municipal projects.
He said that was not the case.
“We don't work on municipal-specific projects,” he said. “But we can support them where we may be of value.”
Gray says there is still plenty of room for ACED to grow.
He says it remains committed to making sure the businesses that are on its contact lists are fully aware of when the federal and provincial governments announce funding programs in case they want to apply for funding and that ACED staff is there to help with the application process.
He adds ACED creates a work plan for the municipal councils, the board members and the Almaguin Chamber of Commerce to weigh in on each year.
Once the plan is in place, the work begins to deliver on the objectives it contains.
Gray also says ACED is an open door organization, meaning any community with a project can bring it up at any board meeting.
He said the goal of ACED is to “deliver consistent value to all our partners.
“If there are expectations that were not met, tell us,” he said.
“If there's something we can do better, we're interested in making that work.”
Gray says the money that goes into economic development can be treated as an expense, but it's also an investment.
Without mentioning Magnetawan by name, Gray acknowledged that some municipalities are questioning whether to renew the agreement with ACED.
But, he told council, “we can provide lots of value. We're only getting started.”
Rocco Frangione is a Local Journalism Initiative reporter who works out of the North Bay Nugget. The Local Journalism Initiative is funded by the Government of Canada.
Rocco Frangione, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The North Bay Nugget