Doing business in Eastern Ontario's ‘comfort zone’

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Each weekday, Omid McDonald leaves his home in Ottawa’s west end, gets in his car and drives to work at the Dairy Distillery, a new business he and his partners opened in Almonte a couple of years ago.

“I’m on the road about half an hour — and that’s amazing in itself,” McDonald says. “In rush hour, it could take the same amount of time just to get to downtown Ottawa.”

As he comes off the highway into Almonte, he passes the town’s welcome sign. “That alone puts me in a nice frame of mind,” he says. “The whole town, with its amazing restaurants and coffee shops and the laid-back people, puts me immediately in a comfort zone. I am there to work, but also to enjoy life. And it happens.”

Apart from the town’s vibe, there are other advantages. “This place really welcomes new businesses,” McDonald says. “If we’d set up shop in Ottawa, the project, with all the [waits for] getting permits and permissions, would have been delayed at least a year.”

That business-friendly attitude seems to be boosting business activity in the town, even in a time of pandemic. “You feel momentum,” McDonald says. “Even [with] COVID, the downtown has had a better year than ever. There’s lots of residential and business construction. My 23 employees are very happy to be here.”

McDonald is more than happy to help spread the good news about business and investment opportunities in Eastern Ontario.

Competitive advantages

EOBJ has spoken to people from six counties and seven cities in Eastern Ontario. We have concentrated on the region surrounding Ottawa, encompassing everything from Renfrew County on the west end to Prescott-Russell on the east, as well as the communities to the south that run along the St. Lawrence Seaway.  The story everywhere seems to be the same. Communities and counties throughout the region are pulling together to let the world know Eastern Ontario, not always thought of as an economic powerhouse, has advantages that make it far more competitive with larger, more populated centres than most realize.

No one tells that story with more fervour than Chris King, president of the Ontario East Economic Development Commission.

“We’re all bullish on the business opportunities in this region,” he says. “I mean, we have so many advantages.”

First is geographical location. Eastern Ontario is within easy reach of the three largest cities in Central Canada: Montreal, Ottawa and Toronto. Some 50 million potential customers, many on the U.S. side, live within 800 kilometres.

Second, Eastern Ontario has amazing infrastructure to serve the needs of business. Multi-lane highways and access to rail, airports and deepwater seaports provide all forms of transportation.

Third, there is a manufacturing sector and a skilled workforce in place that can support new businesses that come in. And those manufacturers already in place have developed supply-chain partners that can serve new arrivals.

Fourth, there are several post-secondary institutions with campuses in communities across the region. These range from Queen’s University, satellite campuses of Algonquin College, St. Lawrence College, Royal Military College of Canada, among others.

And finally, there’s the quality of life of the area. “You know, a lot of people are exiting the large cities to find the quiet life that typifies Eastern Ontario,” King says. “Some are small business entrepreneurs, many of them running small tech companies, who can work anywhere. And then there are the people whose job allows them to work remotely from the office — they can live here happily, and go to their companies’ big city offices every two weeks, as needed.”

What they find in Eastern Ontario is a relaxed rural way of life where one can quickly join the community in a meaningful way, enjoy boating on the many lakes and rivers, and, in many communities, enjoy cultural engagement through the community theatres, concert halls and food and beverage-tasting tours found in the region.

The cost factor

Establishing a business in Eastern Ontario is particularly low cost, as shown in a study by the Boyd Company, which advises companies on site selection for manufacturing facilities. Boyd looked at 24 regions in the U.S. and Canada and found that Eastern Ontario was the least expensive of all. Operating costs for a 350,000-square-foot production facility employing 500 workers ranged from a high of $42.5 million in Silicon Valley down to a low of $27.5 million in Eastern Ontario. That’s more than a third lower than the highest price.

Accounting firm KPMG has found that business operating costs in Toronto are 12.3 per cent higher than in Eastern Ontario communities. Industrially zoned land in Eastern Ontario can be had for an average of $30,000 an acre, far lower than in larger urban centres. Office lease rates are a third lower than Canadian and U.S. averages.

Production workers in the region are paid up to 20 per cent less than their counterparts in Toronto. Turnover and absenteeism rates are both low, indicating a workforce that is loyal and eager to work.

And workers will find purchasing a house easier in Eastern Ontario than in most other regions. The average house costs roughly $300,000 — only a third of what one might pay in Toronto — though the work-from-anywhere movement is edging those prices up. Cornwall saw a 67 per cent increase in housing prices between January 2020 and January 2021.

Looking for a factory? There are a number of vacant factories in the region waiting for the right entrepreneurial hand to put them back in operation.

If you need a bilingual workforce, Eastern Ontario is one of the best places in Canada to be. Hawkesbury, for example, where 67 per cent of the population speaks  English and French, can easily find workers for any call centre that needs to deliver services in both languages.

Bob Peters, manager of Cornwall Economic Development sums up the region’s advantages succinctly: “We are a full-service region without the headaches of more developed regions.”

For Peters, the region’s best features are the low entry costs for business and the quality of life enjoyed by its residents. “Here, you can work hard and really succeed in business and still know you’re only five minutes away, at any moment, from your boat or the first tee.”

Government’s on side

The provincial government has the back of any entrepreneur or businessperson looking to locate in Eastern Ontario. Economic Development Minister Vic Fedeli told Power Book that the government took note of how innovative businesses in the region were in the face of economic difficulties caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. “They demonstrated the best of the Ontario spirit,” the minister said. “As we progress further along the path to a full economic recovery, our government will remain committed to the growth and development of this vital economic region.”

In Brockville, Jim Cooper, president of Canarm, which manufactures fans, lighting and related environmental products, joins the chorus.

“I am glad to be here, and my impression is that our employees feel exactly the same way,” he said.

“I treasure the region’s proximity to Ottawa, Montreal and Toronto, and to two border crossings to the United States. But all of us treasure the way of life here. It’s a wonderful place to raise a family. Here, you can live quite well and quite cheaply. The [St. Lawrence] River is a wonderful place to spend your down time.

“If any business is thinking of locating in this region, I can only give my highest recommendation to proceed.”