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Majority of Stratford-area small business owners remain 'optimistic,' despite pandemic

A global public-health crisis about to enter its third year has been particularly hard on the area’s arts and tourism sectors, but business openings and closures across Perth County appear to be relatively stable, a new report shows.

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A global public-health crisis about to enter its third year has been particularly hard on the area’s arts and tourism sectors, but business openings and closures across Perth County appear to be relatively stable, a new report shows.

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According to an annual analysis of Statistics Canada data in Perth, Huron, Bruce and Grey counties by the Four County Labour Market Planning Board, 34 employers of various sizes left Perth County between June 2020 and June 2021. 

The hardest hit industries?

Arts, entertainment and recreation lost 23 small businesses, the report says. 

Finance and insurance lost 17, including the downsizing or closure of four medium-sized firms that employed between 20 to 99 people.

Accommodators and restaurants have been struggling since the beginning of the pandemic, especially during lockdown periods in Ontario. The report says 13 medium-sized businesses with more than 20 employees closed or downsized in that sector.

Local industries that made gains in Perth County include construction and professional, scientific, and technical services. The number of construction firms in the county grew by 16, despite eight businesses with more than 20 employees closing or downsizing. Of the new construction firms, 14 employ between one and 19 people, the data show.

Much like its three closest neighbours, small businesses dominate the business landscape in Perth County, the report says. Among classified businesses, 70 per cent are self-operated, 15.2 per cent have four or fewer employees, and 6.1 per cent have five to nine employees.

Of the 9,217 employers counted in Perth County, only 61 have more than 100 employees.

Although an economy built on small businesses can be fragile, discussions with local stakeholders in Perth County suggest “the majority of business owners feel optimistic about the future,” the report says.

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“We know that the sector that will be impacted by COVID and the ongoing lockdowns will be the service sector … but what we are seeing is stability across the board in the economy,” added Gemma Mendez-Smith, the labour board’s executive director. “The interesting thing about all of this is, I think, the pandemic is giving us an opportunity to test different business models. People are thinking about how they might continue to support these businesses in other ways, particularly in accommodation and food services.”

Not all of the movement in the local economy can be attributed to the pandemic. In fact, pre-pandemic conditions in Perth County could still be among the largest factors.

“Many of the concerns businesses have historically reported – including inadequate labour supply, skills mismatches with available jobs, housing and transportation difficulties, and limited succession planning – still remain the top concerns for local employers,” the report said.

That rings true for Meghan Marshall, the general manager of Perth Community Futures, a federally supported not-for-profit that offers counselling and financing options to local entrepreneurs. Anecdotally, the age of an entrepreneur in March 2020 has played a big role in the survival of some small businesses, she said.

“It just became easier for them to (retire) than it did to stay open because … no one really knew what was coming down the pipeline.”

Meanwhile, counsellors at Perth Community Futures have recently been just as busy as they were before the pandemic, Marshall added. 

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“People (are) looking to open businesses in Stratford, St. Marys and Perth County. I think that should give you some optimistic feelings because there are people in our community that still want to be entrepreneurs.”

Perth County recently completed a project similar to the report released by the labour board and also found reasons to be optimistic.

“I don’t think it’s doom and gloom,” said Meredith Forget, Perth County’s manager of economic development and tourism, adding that some businesses, particularly in agri-tourism, have enjoyed successful pivots catering to staycationers over the past two years.

“We’re seeing (operations that) have tripled business during the pandemic. I think we should celebrate the fact that our agricultural tourism assets have been showcased and celebrated access the county and regionally.”

Whether or not the pandemic has altered the labour market in Perth County in the long term remains to be seen, Mendez-Smith said. A separate report recently published by the labour board suggests Perth, Huron, Bruce and Grey counties offer a lower proportion of jobs that can be worked remotely compared to the average in Ontario, one example of a long-term pandemic trend that could have an impact in the future.

The introduction of more rapid training programs in Ontario focused on skills employers need is a step in the right direction, Mendez-Smith said, and it will be important to make sure those are available locally.

“The biggest take away is not so much what’s being closed, but what continues to support the economy and making decisions around skills development based on the changes,” she said. “I think we need to see some changes in the way we train so we can upskill (workers).”

cmontanini@postmedia.com


Want to know more?

The Four County Labour Market Planning Board will be presenting both reports during a virtual event aimed at local business owners Jan. 19 at 10:30 a.m. For more information or to register, call 1-888-774-1468 or email admin@planningboard.ca.

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