Jeff Heuchert, Stratford Gazette
The City of Stratford is moving ahead with an economic development corporation in an attempt to further promote and attract business investment in the community.
At its meeting last week, city council gave the green light for the creation of a non-profit company that will be headed by a president/CEO and governed by an appointed board of directors consisting of business and industry leaders and stakeholders.
While Stratford has traditionally had a three-sided economy based on manufacturing, agriculture and the Stratford Festival, digital media has emerged as a growing industry. The corporation’s focus will be on developing a plan for economic growth in the city that continues to diversify that local workforce.
Similar to the Stratford Tourism Alliance, the corporation will act independently of the city but be dependent on budget approval from council. Initial funding for the corporation is pegged at $718,000, an increase of about 15 per cent from the city’s current economic development department.
In a written report to council asking for its support for the corporation, CAO Ron Shaw suggested that would be money well spent.
“Economic development done extremely well can serve to bring in more development and be an economic engine that will provide financial resources for other important and strategic initiatives that the city wishes to pursue,” he wrote.
Still, not everyone was comfortable with the idea.
Coun. Paul Nickel, who along with councillors Kerry McManus and Bonnie Henderson voted against the corporation, questioned whether board members could be trusted to act objectively on matters that might affect their own business.
Coun. Frank Mark replied he believed individuals with any potential conflict of interest could be avoided when council appoints members to the board.
Coun. McManus expressed concern with taking responsibility away from elected officials, and what she sees as a lack of transparency within the board structure.
“We’re moving away from what I see is our intended target: to be more open and to be a more collaborative community where everyone gets to weigh in,” she said. “We are lessening the public voice into public decisions.”
Coun. Martin Ritsma responded councillors could still be contacted by the public and give their input when recommendations from the board are brought to council.
“I don’t see this as a closed club,” he added. “I see it more as an expert club that can certainly help us in our economic development of the City of Stratford.”
The expertise board members can bring to the city’s business retention and attraction efforts is seen as the greatest benefit of the corporation.
“I think there are people in this city who can develop more than the 11 members of this council,” noted Coun. Keith Culliton. “There are other people here who have experience in selling, and they are the ones who are going to sell.”
Coun. Tom Clifford added the corporation would also benefit the city’s downtown core and commercial areas, and not just the manufacturing sector.