The Smallest County with the Biggest Plans

Eastern Prince Edward Island Chamber of Commerce

On Prince Edward Island, we headed east, crossing Queen’s County and bypassing the provincial capital of Charlottetown to come to King’s County, where we spoke with Lori MacGregor, Executive Director, and Sandra Hodder, Rural Labour Market Project lead for the Eastern PEI Chamber of Commerce.

The Chamber, MacGregor says, has been operating for the past 20 years. She came to the position four years ago, bringing with her the experience and insight she gained working with businesses in the rural area since 2007.

Hodder has been with the Chamber for the past two years, working on a pilot project designed to assist the Chamber’s small and medium size businesses with labour market information, training, and podcast development, which has resulted in the creation of podcast production house Bizy in the Sticks, a joint undertaking with the West Prince Chamber of Commerce.

Bringing training home

Another activity of the Rural Labour Market Project involved surveying members to learn what training they needed and how it should be delivered.

Hodder says, “At the Chamber, we believe business owners or their employees shouldn’t have to leave rural PEI to get the training they need. With labour shortages, businesses can’t afford to have employees leave the site, or leave it themselves, so they’re looking for flexible training schedules, which could mean online, in-person, one-on-one, or small group sessions.”

The survey revealed that the greatest needs were specific training in promoting and marketing through social media platforms such as Instagram and Facebook especially during the pandemic, and development of human resource management and bookkeeping skills.

The next step was accessing funding from various organizations to bring training costs down and organizing sessions that fitted with the business’s hours of operation.

So far, it’s been extremely successful, Hodder says. “Lori and I work very well together and we’re both passionate about helping small and mid-size rural businesses.”

King’s County, MacGregor tells us, has a population of 18,327, spread throughout a 1,684 square kilometre area that covers rural and coastal areas, eight municipalities, and two towns. One of them, Souris, on the northeast coast, is home to an interprovincial ferry terminal connecting the island with Quebec’s Magdalen Islands in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Another interprovincial ferry terminal in the southeast at Wood Islands Provincial Park connects the island with Nova Scotia, across the Northumberland Strait.

The other town, home of the Chamber office, is Three Rivers, situated on Cardigan Bay. It’s the result of a 2018 amalgamation of the former towns of Montague and Georgetown; has a deep-water port and a thriving summer theatre, and five municipalities—those of Brudenell, Cardigan, Lorne Valley, Lr. Montague and Valleyfield.

Kings County contains well over one thousand businesses, from small to large, which traditionally included the forestry, fishery, agricultural, and tourism sectors, but which now have been joined by the high-tech and clean energy sectors, along with newcomers who have fallen in love with the island’s relaxed pace, seeing it as the perfect place to open a small, niche-market business.

A resource for sauce

One of those new businesses is Souris Sauces, owned and operated by Jim Graham and his wife Josee Stewart, and winner of the Chamber’s 2022 New Business of the Year Award. After visiting the island and being charmed by it, the couple purchased a four-acre property near the town of Souris in 2018.

Graham had learned the art of home-style preserves from his mother while growing up in southern Ontario, and for 35 years his backyard garden was his solace while working in high-pressure occupations, first as an air gunner in the Canadian Military Special Service Force, and later as a quality assurance specialist in the automotive and concrete industries.

Nowadays his energies go into his garden where he raises vegetables, mainly peppers from seed, pollinated by the hives his wife manages, and produces, without chemicals or sprays, small batches of hand-crafted salsa, sauces, and hot pepper jelly on site. Other ingredients are sourced locally.

Retailers including Sobeys and Superstore are now selling Souris Sauces, also available at farmer’s markets. In the middle of a pandemic, he sold 10,000 units and is hoping to match that in 2022.

After attending a Small Business Growth Expo, sponsored by CBDC East and the Chamber, Graham, who had started his business with no financial assistance, learned how he could expand it to include a storefront operation by partnering with CBDC East, which matched the money he invested in the expansion.

Big rural dreams

We also listened to a Bizy in the Sticks podcast in which MacGregor spoke with Leslie Blake, “a big city girl with big rural dreams.” Blake, who grew up in Toronto, was a dining-room supervisor at a resort in the Muskoka Lakes, trying to find a life-work balance that included time with her husband-to-be. When her parents showed her their photos from a PEI vacation in 2015, she knew exactly how she was going to achieve that balance.

Six months later, on January 1, 2016, her dream became reality when, with husband and parents, she took possession of Ocean Acres Cottages and Deck Restaurant on the Fox River, between Murray Harbour and Murray River.

Although advised that the tourist industry was seasonal, Blake and family have turned Ocean Acres into a success, offering year-round fun. In the summer there’s the patio that seats 70 for lunch and dinner, along with an outdoor 40-foot saltwater pool, while in the winter there’s a skating rink, a fire-pit, and a partnership with Emerald Island Carriage Tours which offers horse-drawn sleigh rides to guests.

“King’s County is a great place to be,” says MacGregor. “What we say is ‘small area but big business.’ Even with the pandemic, things developed and businesses opened with lots of start-ups. Now we have a booming tourist season, and you can’t find a place to stay in eastern PEI this summer,” she says.

“People are moving here because of the lifestyle and housing affordability. We get emails regularly asking about relocation,” she says, sharing with us the most recent statistics on interprovincial migration which show that 1,484 people moved to the island in just the first quarter of 2022. While they are spread across the island, enough are moving to King’s County to make an impact.

Clean energy goes to sea

However, it’s not only newcomers and their start-ups driving the economy of King’s County.

MacGregor told us about Chamber member Aspin Kemp & Associates, Inc. (AKA). Led by CEO and co-founder Jason Aspin, AKA is a systems integration and engineering company that designs, manufactures, and supports power and propulsion assets for marine, offshore gas and oil, and land-based industries.

For the past 20 years, office headquarters have been in Montague, while a 100,000 square foot manufacturing facility which includes a mechanical fabrication area, a heavy electrical-equipment assembly area, and a large test bay with MW, LV, and MV capacity, is in Poole’s Corner, for access to the Port of Georgetown.

A global company, whose international clients include GE Energy, Transocean, Siemens, and Eaton, among others, AKA maintains branch offices in Owen Sound, Ontario; Dartmouth, Nova Scotia; China; and Singapore.

While AKA’s innovations have global implications for reducing GHG emissions, they also directly impact PEI. One example MacGregor speaks about was the recent unveiling of a marine hybrid propulsion system, comprising a diesel engine and electric motor that can drive a propulsion shaft either separately or together.

It will offer significant economic and environmental savings to the marine industry, including, as she points out, PEI lobster fishermen, who are dealing with high fuel costs.

The first clean tech park

MacGregor also talks about an exciting initiative announced in February by the PEI Government regarding a $25 million Clean Tech Park, the first of its kind in Canada, which will be built in Georgetown.

It will be built in phases as a hub for clean tech businesses and education. It will include a 44,000 square foot Clean Tech Learning and Innovation Centre, with a curriculum developed in partnership with the University of PEI and Holland College. It is expected to open in 2024, followed by a 25-hectare business park.

Making the announcement, Steven Myers, Minister of Environment, Energy & Climate Action, noted that “we’re not just building an industry, we’re building an opportunity to be innovative.”

It sounds as if the Clean Tech Park and Aspin Kemp & Associates, Souris Sauces, Ocean Acres, and the myriad businesses in King’s County along with the Eastern PEI Chamber of Commerce and other partnering organizations such as CDBC and Love Local PEI, are indeed transforming the region.

Together, the residents of this county and the Eastern PEI Chamber of Commerce are riding a huge wave of innovation that’s driving the economy forward in the smallest county of Canada’s smallest province.

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