Economic growth strategy needed, says business group

Thunder Bay, Ont. — The Thunder Bay Chamber of Commerce welcomed the authors of the 2023 Ontario Economic Report at the Prosperity Northwest business building conference and trade show event in Thunder Bay on Feb. 15.

Daniel Safayeni, the vice-president of policy, and Claudia Dessanti, a senior policy manager, both with the Ontario Chamber of Commerce, presented their report to a group during the conference at the Valhalla Inn.

Dessanti explained that overall, the economy across the province is expected to slow down.

She said employment growth and population growth are taking a hit this year, especially in Northwestern Ontario.

“Business confidence is at the lowest level that we’ve seen in over a decade,” Dessanti said, noting that some of the big drivers behind that are inflation and labour shortages.

“The cost of living has been a big challenge for workers and consumers, and businesses are feeling the impacts of that. Job vacancies are at a record high, especially in construction, utilities, food, accommodation and the tourism sectors. Those have been driving confidence down this year.”

Safayeni pointed out that there are certain things that are going to be outside of people’s control like the geopolitical risk factors.

“There is not going to be too much we can do about that, but we are cautiously optimistic that there’s a lot at the federal, provincial and municipal levels that we can do to address this issue,” Safayeni said, referring to prudent investments targeted towards growth, enabling infrastructure, workforce development and training, and health care.

“But more broadly, in taking a step back, what we see as missing at the provincial and federal level is a coherent vision for economic growth. We know we’re confronting these headwinds.”

Safayeni says these “headwinds” such as inflation are going to persist and the economy is going to slow down.

“We know we have a tight labour market. So what can the government do within this context, to promote some form of sustained economic growth?” he asked.

Safayeni says right now, as far as they can see from the federal and provincial level, “there hasn’t been that kind of thinking done” in the latest budgets.

“So we call on our decision-makers in the upcoming budgets both federally and provincially, to present some coherent vision for what sustained long-term economic growth in the province and in the country should look like, where that’s going to come from, and how those investments are being targeted directly to champion that growth. That’s what the chamber is going to be pushing for,” he said.

Dessanti added that the one silver lining that they have seen is that employment has stayed high.

“If people remain employed, people will be able to spend and businesses will stay afloat. I think that that’s the one upside in this is that it’s different from past recessions,” she said.

When it comes to some of the big economic growth drivers in the region, such as the mining sector or natural resources, Safayeni says their growth is ultimately going to be hobbled by the same things that are needed to address policy issues, to unlock growth and other areas.

“That means housing shortages, labour recruitment and retention,” Safayeni said. “By taking those issues seriously, that have been called out in the report as well, Thunder Bay can help its own economy succeed as well in terms of unlocking those major sectors that have room to grow and serious economic potential like mining.”

Sandi Krasowski, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Chronicle-Journal