Tara MacWhirter expanded earlier this year with a new line of products. Now she's looking to possibly expand into bigger production space to keep up with demand. (Photo: Francis Tessier-Burns).

UCPR’s latest push to keep local business

Tara MacWhirter, the owner of Garden Path Homemade Soap, says she was “floored” when she couldn’t find a location in the Township of Champlain that fit her needs to expand.

She adds that if there was something close to what she was looking for, “the rent and the taxes and the hydro would not make sense to move there, so it was very discouraging.”

She ended up looking for a location outside Champlain, but finally settled on building an addition to her home to accommodate her growing soap production needs.

That was last year, and now MacWhirter is looking to expand again, and is running into a similar situation. This time, though, another addition to the home isn’t an option; and adding a separate building to the property dedicated purely to soap production may entail a zoning change.

A zoning change currently costs $3,200 in Champlain and the process lasts about three months with public meetings, and the ultimate decision pending council’s approval. There are myriad other factors to consider as well: potential changes to the township’s Official Plan, creating an exception in zoning and by extension tax rates on the property.

It’s a lengthy, costly process MacWhirter isn’t sure she wants to engage in yet, but knows something has to be done if Garden Path is to keep growing. 

Last year, MacWhirter added this space to her home to help keep up with production; now she’s started thinking of a new space altogether. (Photo: Francis Tessier-Burns).

Identifying opportunities

This is exactly the type of feedback the United Counties of Prescott and Russell are looking for in administering the Opportunités Prescott-Russell Opportunities program. 

The united counties launched the second and most critical part of the program this summer. Each municipality has been in charge of interviewing a specific number of businesses from a randomly-generated list, for a total of 562 businesses across Prescott-Russell. The businesses are separated into four major sectors: commercial, agricultural and food-related, tourism and industrial. The deadline for the interviews is September 28, at which point the data will be analyzed and sent back to the counties highlighting strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats.

According to Carole Lavigne, the director of economic development and tourism for UCPR, the program will give UCPR a “good picture of all sectors.”

So far, she says about 60 per cent of the interviews have been completed, but couldn’t comment on the data compiled so far.

OPRO stems from the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs Business Retention and Expansion program. It is costing $45,000, with $20,000 of that is coming from a provincial grant. Lavigne says it’s the first time this type of program is being undertaken by UCPR.

Attracting investment

Jacques Des Becquets is the “municipal champion” in charge of administering the program within Champlain. With Ottawa, Montreal and Cornwall being three sizeable markets, he says the region “stands to win from getting a snapshot of what the economic climate is like… and where do we go from here.”

He adds that conveying that to local businesses has been somewhat of a “hard sell.” The survey takes just over an hour to complete. That’s a lot of time for someone like MacWhirter to step away from her small business—especially since there’s no immediate incentive to doing so.  

“There was nothing really appealing,” says MacWhirter. “It’s not like you got anything for participating, but I felt it was useful because we are small businesses and we rely so heavily upon each other and on our local government to help us.”

Nonetheless, Des Becquets maintains its in the businesses’ best interest.

“The end goal is to improve the economic situation in Prescott-Russell, but we’re hoping it’ll also become a sales tool and attract potential investors..” 

Jacques Des Becquets is Champlain township’s municipal champion for UCPR’s OPRO program. (Photo: Francis Tessier-Burns).

To help facilitate that idea, the counties have also been mapping available land zoned as industrial and commercial.

During consultation for the Economic Strategic Plan, Lavigne says UCPR was told it wasn’t “investment ready.” The mapping is an attempt to correct that problem.

Lavigne was asked if the counties were looking to attract specific types of businesses. She said, without the report, she couldn’t confirm it will focus on one sector over another. 

But, “it’s not something that going to sit on the shelf,” she assured. “We will have action plans and recommendations.”

Grappling with growth

MacWhirter thinks the feedback generate by the survey will be inherently linked to the health of the business.

“Right now, the business is doing well, so everything I have to say is great, but not everyone is in that position,” she says.

Her advice? “If the township can just be as supportive as it can, and it doesn’t even have to be financial.” Simple check-ins can go a long way, she says.  

For now, MacWhirter says she’s trying to be as efficient as possible to keep up with demand as she grapples with growth. That means larger batches, off-site storage and packaging, but she’s not sure how long that’ll last.

“We have to decide on where we want this to go.”

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