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What it takes to build a successful, knowledge-based economy in a small Canadian community

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For the sixth year running, Collingwood made the Canadian Federation of Independent Business’ (CFIB) top 10 list of small communities to start and grow a business in Canada. This year we ranked number one in Ontario.

Since we started appearing on the CFIB’s entrepreneurship awards list, more and more people have decided this is, indeed, a great place to start a business. If you thought that having Blue Mountain on one side and the beaches of Georgian Bay on the other sweetens the pot, you would be correct. Setting up shop in Ontario’s premiere four-season playground is a big draw.

What people don’t know, however, is that Collingwood and the South Georgian Bay region is Ontario’s best-kept knowledge-economy secret. Other communities have struggled to manage the transition from traditional industries to the higher pay and stability that knowledge and tech sector jobs bring; we’re most of the way there.

Heavy industry is very much Collingwood’s history. For a century, shipbuilding sustained us. When that went away in 1986, tourism became a sustaining force. But there was an opportunity to layer new growth onto the great lifestyle that attracted tourism in the first place.

When I tell people what kinds of businesses we have here, it blows them away. Many are true global leaders. MacLean Engineering, for example, is one of the world’s leading manufacturers of electrically-powered underground vehicles for mining. They were among the first to market, have a significant market share and compete with multinationals like Epiroc and Caterpillar.

Sensor Technologies is another. They make underwater sensors used by the world’s navies, fishing fleets and NASA. Isowater is a company that leads the world market in the supply of heavy water products for the cosmetics, medical and computer manufacturing industries.

To attract tech businesses, however, ski hills and beaches will only take you so far.  Fast fibre Internet and proximity to the GTA both help. The Collingwood Business Development Centre (BDC), conceived in 2014, is another big factor. It’s a one-stop shop for prospects to find land and space, meet the right people and get loans and grants. They hold more than 100 networking events each year to make sure that business owners and entrepreneurs can meet up with local leaders who can support their growth.

What we have now are synergies between area businesses, a community of sophisticated businesspeople and a high degree of business acumen. We have critical mass. If you want a high-skilled knowledge-economy job here, you can have one. Some workers in the area are even reverse-commuting from Toronto.

So how can other small communities across Canada emulate our entrepreneurial success? First off, they need to develop an economic development plan focused on nurturing the kind of business ecosystem they hope to sustain over time. Transitioning to a knowledge-focused economy takes concerted effort and strategy. A dedicated business development center is a big part of that, but the local government needs to get behind the concept, too. Collingwood’s mayor, Brian Saunderson, has been a major supporter of fostering connections between our many thriving companies. As a pillar of the local business community, he is able to speak their language.

Another factor in our success was an emphasis on meeting with local tech companies to better understand their operational needs. The near-universal message: ‘We’re doing great, but we just can’t find enough qualified employees.’ It’s a familiar refrain heard across Ontario, but a potential harbinger of local economic hardship if not promptly addressed.

So, we responded with an undertaking that—as far as we can tell—is a first in Canada. We created a campaign promoting the fact that this is a great place for tech and knowledge-economy companies to thrive and grow. It’s called Live More Now, and it’s aimed squarely at attracting skilled workers and entrepreneurs who place a high value on the many lifestyle benefits of living and working in a four-seasons resort community such as Collingwood. We’ve worked with area tech businesses to get pointed in the right direction and to develop a messaging strategy. You’ll find write-ups and videos on the businesses and their people, a curated online job board stacked with current positions, and useful ‘how-to’ information for business owners and job seekers. We’ve mounted a PR effort and partnered with Mountain Life, a popular local outdoors publication, for integrated digital outreach.

The campaign is homegrown, from the creative messaging strategy and PR outreach to the website, social media campaign and videos. Even the blockchain-based online advertising platform we use is made in Collingwood. Alongside this campaign are other undertakings like the Tech 5×5 networking and seminar event, the Business in Motion Speaker Series, education sessions and pitch competitions. These initiatives create opportunities not only to network but also to enhance business acumen, improve social media marketing, pitching and other skills you need to grow a business successfully.

For other communities that want to follow our path, my advice is simple: capitalize on what you do best, celebrate what you’ve built, and make a concerted effort to tell the kinds of workers and businesses you want why they should consider your community.

Martin Rydlo is the Director of Marketing and Business Development for the town of Collingwood, Ont. For more  on the Live More Now campaign, visit www.livemorenow.ca

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