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The Higher ED Blog: Hitting the Road with Community Futures Oxford

Meg Ronson / March 27, 2017

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The Higher ED Blog: Hitting the Road with Community Futures Oxford

Last Monday, University of Waterloo students in the Masters of Economic Development and Innovation (MEDI) program, accompanied by Professors Heather Hall and Tara Vinodrai, were taken on an educational “roadshow” in nearby Oxford County, Ontario, to get a closer look at the more rural side of things. Kept on a tight schedule by organizer Allan Simm of Community Futures Oxford, the group of 19 inquiring minds piled into a school bus and took a tour of Oxford County to learn about some of the complexities of developing a region’s economy.

The first stop was at the Community Futures Oxford office in Ingersoll, where the Community Futures team described their programs and services, and how their board was structured. The students learned how volunteerism was a big part of the organization’s operations from several volunteer board members, successful businesspeople in the county who were happy to share their knowledge to further the success of their community.

From there, they were off to the Fusion Youth Centre in Ingersoll, a powerhouse activity centre for the town’s young people. They were amazed at the staggering number of programs and resources the centre was able to manage and maintain. Kids could learn to cook, play the drums, guitar or piano, build their own computers, run their own radio show, make a beautiful, original work of art… There was even a “snoezelen” style room, a beautiful room full of glittering lights and textures designed to provide a therapeutic environment for children and people with autism or other developmental needs. It was an exciting glimpse into the younger, more creative, and maybe sometimes less visible side of successful community management: filling up the toolbox of a community’s heirs.

Woodstock is the home of the County of Oxford office, where a delicious lunch was served and the entire Economic Development team of Oxford County was present to run through their communities and discuss each of their unique challenges, successes and future plans. The curious graduate students had question after question for the team, with the answers solidifying what their academic research and field work had already more than hinted at: there are a lot of twists and turns to navigate in this industry! What was most exciting was to see such a great mix of towns, some urban, some less so, still sharing some common goals and even drawing support from one another.

Back on the road, it was time to see some of Woodstock’s latest developments and new businesses. The Patullo Ridge Business Park has seen continuous additions of diverse businesses taking advantage of low rents, available labour force and close proximity to the 401 highway. As our guide, Len  Magyar, pointed out these classic draws, the students nodded knowingly, reminded  as they were of papers written, reports read and even heated discussions they had had during seminar on these very topics.

Finally, it was time to see local businesses in action! The big yellow school bus—with a few straggling cars in tow—lumbered into TreeCycle Wood Products’ front yard. Production was in full swing as tractors scooped up mounds of previously-used wood and fed it into a conveyer system that swept it away into the depths of a massive barn. The process would see the wood cleaned and refined into small pellets or dust to make heavy wood bricks for woodstoves or animal bedding. A relatively new business in the area, the tour’s host informed them that demand was well above available supply for their products, hinting at future growth in commercial and employment activity for the town.

The last stop, on the other hand, was a different kind of refinement. Gunn’s Hill Artisan Cheese seems like a small operation, with only ever 3 basins preparing cheeses per day, but a quick tour of the factory revealed a labyrinth of storage areas housing a veritable library of cheeses. Floor to ceiling shelves of bright yellow cheese wheels are stored in chilled, carefully maintained environments and aged for months at a time before being sold to grocery chains and other clients. Owner and operator Shep Ysselstein also has ongoing business relationships with local farmers and nearby Mennonite communities. The business has been experiencing steady growth in the province and is looking to expand further in future. How big is too big for Shep? Having worked in a wide range of different cheese factories, he has a pretty good idea of how big his artisan production can comfortably get before costs outweigh profit, and thinks at that point, he’d probably branch into other productions. Maybe a brewery?  Sounds like a perfect match.

With that the roadshow was over, and our Masters students piled back into the yellow school bus for their trip back to Waterloo. Their academic curiosity had been sated for now, but new questions had emerged. How do you prepare a community for the exit of a major employer? What’s to be done about municipal borders when industrial and job attraction are on the line? How much cheese is too much cheese?

About the author

Meg Ronson is the editor of Higher ED, Outreach Manager for the Economic Development Program and Masters candidate of Economic Development and Innovation at University of Waterloo. Her research involves studying credit unions and co-operative businesses as potential tools for strengthening and diversifying local economies.

About the series

Higher ED: Insights for the Next Economy is a platform for students, guest speakers, staff and faculty of the University of Waterloo’s professional and graduate economic development programs to share knowledge with the field at large. The series takes works destined for an academic audience and reworks them into a fresh, easy-to-digest blog article.

Established in 1987, the Master of Economic Development and Innovation (MEDI) is one of the only graduate programs in Canada focused exclusively on economic development. Students learn economic development theory and practice, and are exposed to leading edge knowledge, tools, and approaches to address contemporary challenges in cities and communities across Canada and internationally.

The Economic Development Program is a nationally-accredited provider of professional training. It delivers certification programs and seminars that offer a deep understanding of the Canadian context in a convenient block format. Peer learning is combined with informative lectures and practical case studies to provide dynamic instruction that is beneficial for junior and senior-level practitioners.

 

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