Housing focus of discussion on Perth County business retention, expansion study – Toronto Star

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PERTH COUNTY – MDB Insight presented the results of a Triage Business Retention and Expansion (BR+E) study of local businesses to council on Dec. 2. The study was conducted to give a better understanding of opportunities and barriers to businesses in the current environment given the impact of COVID-19.
The study was undertaken to complement various online business surveys, telephone calls and individual outreach that staff conducted throughout the pandemic and was designed to provide statistically significant results through a random sampling at the community level.
Following a process to harmonize and update the Perth County business directory and contact information, a total of 160 telephone surveys were completed over September and October. As a whole, businesses expressed a 95 per cent satisfaction level with Perth County as a place to do business.
“It’s been a very successful program,” said Executive Vice President of MDB Insight, Chris Bandak. “We’ve done it for over 80 municipalities across Canada. Most municipalities are on their second or third iteration of the program because it provides such a precise set of initiatives that you can focus on to help the business community.”
He said they started with an initial sample of 1,404 numbers but that was pared down because some numbers are not in service, some are bad numbers, some businesses are no longer running. The sample group of 160 in the study was represented a response rate of 16.3 per cent, which Bandak said is extremely high in the market research industry today.
“I think typically market research studies are in the area of one to two per cent response rates,” he said.
Bandak said this response rate gives a 7.7 per cent margin of error and 95 per cent confidence level meaning that the results are repeatable 19 times out of 20.
Of the businesses that replied 16 per cent said that over the past 12 months their staff increased, 17 per cent said it decreased and 67 per cent said it remained the same. However, over the next 12 months 33 per cent of the same employers said they expected staff to increase, two per cent expect it to decrease and over 60 per cent expect their staff to remain the same. Over the past 12 months, 41 per cent of respondents said their revenues increased, 23 per cent said they decreased and 36 per cent said they remained about the same. Expectations for the next 12 months showed that 49 per cent of respondents expect revenues to increase, eight per cent expect them to decrease and 43 per cent expect them to remain about the same.
“Interesting results here – this is slightly different than what we’ve seen in almost every other municipality over the last 12 months,” said Bandak. “You have a net increase for the past 12 months meaning more businesses increased than decreased. That looks positive.”
To gauge the attitudes of business owners, the study asked if they were more positive, more negative or about the same. Fourteen per cent of respondents said they were more positive, seven said they were more negative and 79 per cent remained the same.
“Again we see that same sort of positive result with net positive seven per cent being more positive versus negative,” said Bandak.
Perth County scored the highest of the last 12 municipalities MDB Insight has studied.
“This points to a lot of expected growth, positive attitudes and hiring for the next 12 months,” he said.
The areas that scored lowest in business satisfaction were availability of attainable housing for workers with a 35 per cent satisfaction rate, availability of skilled workers with a 44 per cent satisfaction rate and availability of unskilled workers with a 42 per cent satisfaction rate.
Staff were also provided with individual business responses where the respondents allowed for that information to be shared. A total of 45 businesses with planned expansions were identified as green flags. A total of 23 businesses were identified and red-flagged that planned to downsize, relocate, sell or close.
“Based on your business community there are lots of businesses that have been in business for more than 10 years, they own their business properties… so we’ve got that great group of businesses that are deeply entrenched within your community,” said Senior Consultant at MDB Insight, Jordan Tidey.
Coun. Daryl Herlick asked how the results compare to areas such as downtown Mississauga for satisfaction and support from the local community.
Bandak said that he could not speak to an area as specific as downtown Mississauga but relative to the 80 other communities they have worked with across Canada the data is very positive.
“In fact, on most key metrics you are probably a little bit higher than most municipalities,” he said. “That’s the best I can do in terms of giving you a direct comparison.”
Deputy Warden Rhonda Ehgoetz asked how follow up is completed with red-flagged businesses.
“We’ve already followed up with all of the businesses that have welcomed the opportunity to have conversations with us as red-flagged items,” said Manager of Economic Development and Tourism, Meredith Forget. “We took it as a team priority that all the businesses that had been flagged red that we reached out immediately to them.”
Coun. Todd Kasenberg said he found the report fascinating and was grateful that the county invested in it.
“When you think about the things that were identified as potential challenges that we face in our business community and you start working backwards by asking why, why, why for each of the factors that we see it strikes me that the answer continues to be the common denominator of housing and affordable housing,” he said. “I invite any of my colleagues and the consultants to drive through the streets of Listowel – you see help wanted signs everywhere… Certainly the labour reliability issue is complex and I don’t want to oversimplify it, but I want to make the point that housing is a significant, if not the root, problem in all of this. We need a space for those workers who will fill those jobs that are being so advertised… If we can’t house people here and they have to drive from other communities or be brought here then we have a significant challenge in terms of economic growth in our area so we need to tackle the housing problem.”
Ehgoetz added that the housing problem is everywhere across Ontario.
“There’s help wanted signs everywhere so we’re not unique to that problem and I know we’re trying to solve it,” she said. “I think the government is going to step up now and help out with that problem but I’m not sure just how we can solve it because it’s everywhere.”
Herlick pointed to aging Baby Boomers as a possible solution to the housing issue.
“We have a tremendous amount of Baby Boomers in their homes right now and those homes are coming up for sale… in the next 15 or 20 years,” he said. “I wish there was some kind of cooperative where young families could team up. Traditionally that’s where the church and the community – a local chapter would step in and help these people and you know take over the home… there is a tremendous amount of people in their 70s, 80s sitting in homes and they are going to be coming available and it’s just a matter of time if we can house them or… that’s something I’m wondering. I don’t know if we can talk about it at the county… it’s very unique.”
Coun. Doug Eidt pointed out that certain suggestions made in the study were out of council’s control. He noted that it takes at least three or four years to build an apartment.
“We’ve always said in Mitchell – I’ve been here 12 years – we’d like an apartment building built in Mitchell,” he said. “We’re getting one. It got held up… for three years. Now we are getting one which is a seniors’ apartment.”
He also raised an issue with two new subdivisions being built in Mitchell and issues with natural gas availability for them.
“Both, I’m going to call them higher density ones, are held up by Enbridge not coming to put gas in the ground,” said Eidt. “Therefore there is so many outside mitigating factors for this and we can’t as municipalities force Enbridge to come… it’s bigger than us… Houses that are built are still going to be $500,000 to $700,000. I don’t know if you can build a $300,000 home. A semi may be $400,000 but the projects are getting held up on the higher density, lower price. I just scratch my head and wonder how we can forward them on.”
Forget said action items identified in the study have been separated into two areas.
“There is the advocacy piece for natural gas, attainable housing… the items that have been identified by our businesses that are really out of our control,” she said. “We’ve taken all the items and issues our businesses are facing that we can have some influence on and we’ve included them into our work plan.”
Warden James Aitcheson said it was interesting Eidt brought up natural gas. He said he had been asked to complete a phone survey about Enbridge gas.
“How well they serve the communities, how well they corresponded with the communities and I think every item I ticked less than satisfied or completely dissatisfied,” he said. “When all was said and done the person doing the survey said ‘you sound negative towards Enbridge.’ I said, ‘That’s because we don’t get service, we don’t get correspondence. We have no idea what their thinking process is.’
“It will be interesting to see what comes out of it. I wasn’t really happy with what’s going on. I don’t think anyone on this council is really happy with what’s going on.”
Aitcheson also commented on the lack of skilled labour in the region.
“Skilled labour, it’s lacking so bad it isn’t funny,” he said. “If you want any of these smaller businesses, a lot of them do require skilled labour.”
He agreed with Kasenberg’s point that housing is a major underlying issue.
“Yes, the government says they are stepping up to the table but I’m going to ask you all the same question – How many times have you heard that with no results?” he asked. “Let’s hope that maybe this time you get some results but it’s just my comment on that. It’s definitely the issue.”
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