Though largely rural, Middlesex County’s chief sectors are not limited to manufacturing and agri-business, but also include tourism and small business enterprises, which make up a significant percentage of its economic engine. Skilled labour comes from the University of Western Ontario and Fanshawe College. Competitive labour costs and lower taxes become incentives for businesses to come here and, with the assistance of Cara Finn, the newly appointed Director of Economic Development, this county is set to grow by leaps and bounds.
Middlesex County has just hired its first full-time Director of Economic Development. Cara Finn’s job is to promote economic development and tourism for the county as a whole. Her tenure only began earlier this year, but she has extensive experience in the county for the past fourteen years.
One of the most crucial aspects that influence the success of any region or county is its location. Middlesex County is strategically located with access to highways 401 and 402, in relative proximity to the U.S. and major urban centres such as Toronto and Hamilton.
Middlesex’s closeness to markets is a primary asset. The 400-series highways 401 and 402 run directly through the county. It is less than one hour drive from the Michigan border and less than two hours from Toronto.
“Our proximity to markets and readily accessible transportation are major advantages with respect to industry and business operating,” says Finn. “Our population is just over 75,000. We call ourselves the horseshoe that surrounds the city of London with a population of 380,000.”
This is primarily a rural municipality, with a small urban mix and a strong sense of community. Several festivals take place with some that have been running for many years like the Strathroy Hometown Turkey Festival, the Donnybrook Fiddle & Step Dance Competition and the Thorndale, Ilderton and Glencoe Fall Fairs, to name a few. Attendance, for many, is a family tradition.
Agri-tourism for the numerous berry farms and orchards in the area includes a variety of activities such as zip lining and trail and wagon rides. Farm and specialty shops throughout the county are known for such delectable offerings as the famous mile-high apple pie and chocolate butter tarts.
Agri-business in Middlesex County encompasses everything from agri-tourism to large scale operations and food processing. Bonduelle North America, located in Strathroy, is a major processor of local vegetables and an important player in the frozen foods market. Beechwood Agri Services is a full-service global grain business. It cleans, handles and stores grains and soybeans and offers grain marketing.
The effect of this sector on Middlesex County is significant and an economic impact assessment was needed to implement strategies to maximize its success and potential. The assessment was completed in March of 2015 and, according to its findings, “Agriculture is the cornerstone of the economy of the County of Middlesex with over $1.2 billion in total economic impact. This extends to $547 million in GDP, 7,822 total jobs and $290 million in wages and salaries.”
The food industry is the largest employer within this sector, accounting for 15.2% of all jobs in Middlesex County. “The employment profile of London complements the County of Middlesex. Middlesex is strong at the primary production end of the scale, whereas London is strong in the agri-food processing sectors. Together, the region offers a solid base of business across many aspects of the agri-food industry.”
Middlesex is home to well-known manufacturers such as Vari-Form, Meridian and Armatec Survivability. Strathroy’s Vari-Form engineers and manufactures structural automotive parts via hydroforming. Also in Strathroy, Meridian provides magnesium die cast design, engineering and technology for the transportation industry. Armatec Survivability, in Dorchester, builds ‘survivability systems’ for NATO military vehicles.
Small business, however, is one of the largest sectors in Middlesex County and many of these companies thrive in this environment. Businesses such as The Clock Tower Inn and The Strathroy Brewing Company flourish because it is less expensive to operate a business here.
Part of this is the lower tax rate in Middlesex. “But, you will also find that development charges are often waived by many of the municipalities, which provides an added advantage. There are also incentives in place. We have funding for downtown revitalization in several municipalities. Some offer façade improvements and rebates through community improvement plans (CIPs), which allow for further investment in core areas.”
Middlesex has a thriving residential market because of the easy commute to London and a great quality of life which revolves around an urban-rural mix. The county boasts a remarkable health care system. Four Counties Health Services and Strathroy Middlesex General Hospital are located in the county. Five hospitals provide renowned health care services from neighbouring London. Healthy living is complemented by abundant recreational opportunities, with sports associations that excel at running programs for youths and adults alike. “We have a thriving community, with complete access to all of the benefits that you would normally appreciate in an urban environment.”
The county has a lower cost of living and greater availability of land than much of southern Ontario. Larger lot sizes are there for the taking which gives more room to breathe. Residents have rural living without having to be too far from the necessary amenities. That’s accessibility! Middlesex promotes a variety of industrial park sites in this regard. One particular site is one of the very few in Ontario that is certified by the province to be shovel-ready.
“We have a total of eight business parks which offer service environments. There is opportunity for expansion. We receive a steady stream of inquiries into both the county’s economic development office and into the lower tier municipalities. We have some hot-button areas that people are interested in, and my job is to ensure that all of those areas are well promoted and that people are interested in coming here.”
Appreciating business is evident in everything the county does. It not only promotes the business parks, but all the companies within them. In October of this year, Finn hosted a business appreciation dinner. This is a first for the county, and honoured forty of its long-standing businesses. County Council was present to better get to know the business managers and owners, the goal being to encourage ongoing communication with the businesses, discuss their needs and uncover steps to retain and expand them.
“It’s about making that conscious effort with all of our promotions and new website. It’s all about the four sectors, and our promotions will show that. We want to make sure that people can see themselves here.”
Due to the county’s proximity to urban centres, there is easy access to the highly-qualified educational institutions of Fanshawe College and Western University in the city of London. These serve the county well in readying the workforce. People here are well-trained, well-educated and ready to work.
New ideas are important for any business or community. Fanshawe College is on the cusp of breaking ground on an innovation centre which will border Middlesex County and the city of London. Finn met recently with its R&D department, and the ongoing relationship will allow incoming businesses access to facilities that Fanshawe possesses.
“That is one of the fantastic resources and one of the things that we are really excited about. It is just underway. Both Fanshawe and Western have been there for us and will continue to be there. They are doing new and exciting things all the time. My experience since coming on has been absolute 100% willingness on the part of these institutions to work with Middlesex County and its businesses,” shares Finn.
“My job is easy,” she says. “When you have such benefits to work with, it is not a hard sell when looking at the attributes of Middlesex County. It’s important to recognize that in our diversity, there is so much opportunity. Whether you are here already or interested in coming here, this is an absolutely phenomenal place to look!”