Less talk, more action on small business

“A city like Barrie lives on the growth of small business; most people in the city work in businesses of 20 and fewer employees. These are jobs that won’t leave town, as many of the services provided are connected to place. The more these businesses grow, the more local jobs available.”

Devine musing … by John Devine

There’s a lot of official chatter about supporting small business, the economic backbone of a community like Barrie. But when push comes to shove you have to wonder how much of that chatter really matters in the growth of enterprise and innovation.
Forgive me if I’m wrong, but the ‘official’ employment strategy of governments at all levels seems to be one of chasing jobs every other jurisdiction is after, and ones that may only be around until the government subsidies run out or the plant in some ‘free’ zone, is built.
Rod Jackson, Barrie’s MPP, hosted a useful seminar at The Creative Space recently, highlighting the various government programs and networks established to support the growth of small businesses. And there are many useful avenues available.

But he also told a story of an American company that made popsicle sticks, with the aid of $7 million of public money over seven years, only to go bankrupt at the end of the day. And where did the wood for the sticks come from? Not from resource-rich Canada. In this case, we had Ontario taxpayers paying an American company to make popsicle sticks from wood imported from south of the border.
The same direction can be seen in numerous communities as governments bend over backwards to entice companies to either stay or relocate. Where’s the innovation and entrepreneur-developing strategy in this approach? The object of all this official desire may hang around, but if they can make a product in a corner of the world where people work for a dollar a day, and environmental and labour laws are lax or non-existent, what can our governments, as well as labour groups, do to convince them to do business here?

We could participate in a race to the bottom and agree to chip away at wage and benefits, as is already happening, but then if everyone is working for next to nothing, who’d be able to afford all those fine products these companies make? Or, we could enact ‘made in Canada’ rules and take our chances at the World Trade Organization. Don’t bet on that happening anytime soon.

Now, yes, I understand these are broad comments and not every big company is going to move, and that maintaining those big-industry jobs is critical. But, globalization, for good and bad, basically gives industry the ability to pick up and move and there’s very little governments can do about it. Free trade actually amounts to a bill of rights for corporations.
Actually, what they could do is try to build effective labour and environmental provisions into free-trade agreements, thereby creating a more level playing field. Labour and human rights groups could do their part as well by proactively assisting the growth of basic work and environmental laws in free-trade zones, but that might be expecting too much. It’s one thing to comment from afar, but to effect change from within is a more daunting task.
So, if we accept that keeping traditional industry jobs in Canada amounts to a strategy with increasingly diminishing returns, shouldn’t there be more of a focus on creating jobs that won’t leave – ones tied to the community through entrepreneurship and innovation?
Consider the advantages:
• A city like Barrie lives on the growth of small business; most people in the city work in businesses of 20 and fewer employees. These are jobs that won’t leave town, as many of the services provided are connected to place. The more these businesses grow, the more local jobs available.
• A focus on entrepreneurship is a positive reaction to the downsizing trend that sees older workers shown the door. They don’t walk out that door leaving their knowledge and skills behind. So, rather than having these talented people banging on doors in the hopes of landing a job, which in this economy is lonely road to walk, especially if you are over 50 – yes, Virginia, ageism does exist – let’s show them how to use those skills to start their own business which, if successful, will lead to growth and opportunities for others.
As previously stated, a number of very good programs already exist to help people start a business. For instance, Donna Douglas, a well-known entrepreneur and writer, offers a number of related programs, including her popular Grow Vantage course. Other programs are available through various government agencies. These are the kind of programs that should be more readily available to people considering employment choices, or at a career crossroad.
• Encouraging innovation also creates employment and opportunity, particularly if the skills and knowledge required by innovation are available locally. Innovation-based jobs aren’t likely to head offshore, as the required skills may not be available there.
Personally, I think a successful local innovative strategy, with input from various levels of government, is the one the sees Barrie growing into a data hub. The location of the new IBM Canada Research and Development Centre, with its ties to a number of universities, is one of the more exciting developments to happen locally in some time. Along with the TD and BMO data centres, Barrie is developing its own technology niche.

So, if everyone agrees that small business is important to a community like Barrie, what can be done to foster their growth? Well, perhaps actually noticing them would be a start.

The Creative Space (TCS) in downtown Barrie is a case in point. It’s a cooperative business environment, home to 27 small businesses and up to 50 employees, making it one of the largest, if not the largest, employee hubs in the downtown. It contributes to the vitality of the downtown through the purchasing power of the people working there, and its growth as a creative hub. It’s also one of those ‘creative class’ businesses that urban strategists, including Richard Florida, have been telling municipal officials a city like Barrie needs to attract.
What’s interesting about ‘The Space’ is that it has evolved outside of any ‘official’ focus, other than verbal support and admiration, driven by the entrepreneurial and innovative efforts of owners Chad and Sandra Ballantyne, owners of Rhubarb Media. It’s exactly the kind of creative presence downtown Barrie needs, and it has developed without any type of municipal assistance, despite the City spending hundreds of thousands on studies telling it to attract and grow creative-based enterprises like TCS.
We’re not talking about direct subsidies or favouritism, but rather a little substance to match the rhetoric. A case in point is the recent kerfuffle over proposed fees for downtown sidewalk patios. After it was pointed out that the hastily proposed fees would render the sidewalk-patio project unviable, they were withdrawn. They should never have been proposed in the first place.
Revitalizing the downtown is a council priority. Bringing people downtown is key to that strategy. Sidewalk patios would, it must be assumed, entice residents to come downtown, enjoy some lunch on a summer day, and perhaps do some shopping afterwards. So, why put the patios and related fees outside the scope of the revitalization drive?
The proposal not only failed to acknowledge the development of sidewalk patios as part of downtown revitalization, it ignored their potential to foster the development of small businesses and related employment opportunities.
What could the City and other levels of government do to help small businesses grow into bigger ones? Helping to create opportunity would be useful. This could include promoting at various trade shows the skills and abilities available in Barrie, using communication channels, including newsletters and such, to profile successful entrepreneurs and innovators, and perhaps keeping local businesses in mind when contracting out services. If the job can be done in Barrie, don’t spend $300,000 to have an out-of-country firm do it, all things being equal?
Rhetoric is easy, adding substance to it a bit more difficult.

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