Financial help for economic growth in the works

The pieces of the puzzle are starting to fall into place for economic growth in Northern Ontario, said Tannis Drysdale, president of the Northern Ontario Associated Chambers of Commerce.
NOACC has proposed to the provincial government a plan to make so-called “grow bonds” available to people in Northern Ontario wanting to start or expand a small- to mid-sized company—something in between the small corner store and the multinational corporation.
Drysdale, a Fort Frances resident, said the idea came out of discussions around access to capital for businesses of that size and problems with working venture funds, which are labour-sponsored.
There were difficulties getting people in other parts of Ontario to invest in northern projects.
“They were only interested in investing in urban centres,” noted Drysdale. “There was [only] one project in Northern Ontario.
“Venture capitalists want to be next to their investments,” she explained. “[To them], it’s easier to invest in urban centres than it is out here in the woods.”
In fact, she said investors would go so far as to suggest to people in the north with good ideas that they should move to Toronto.
This prompted NOACC to look for ways that northerners could help themselves, with Drysdale saying they looked at who “bucked the trend.”
“We wanted to grow our communities with innovation,” she remarked.
The answer was Manitoba—and Grow Bonds North was born.
Modelled after a similar successful program in Manitoba, essentially the Grow Bonds North initiative would allow Northern Ontarians only to invest in their own futures.
“There are two main advantages,” said Drysdale. “We’ll be able to diversify the economy in Northwestern Ontario past an economy based on one or two industries.
“And, for the first time, we, as Northwestern Ontarians, will have the opportunity to invest in our own communities.
“We need the opportunity to start investing in ourselves,” she added. “Economies grow in an environment of confidence. I think we have enough resources in Northwestern Ontario to create a diverse economy.”
Drysdale said the Ministry of Northern Development and Mines, through the Northern Ontario Heritage Fund Corp., would allocate a sum of money to guarantee bond issues in Northern Ontario.
The amount proposed is $30 million over 10 years, though Drysdale is confident this will be a conservative figure as the program becomes used.
Of course, this money would only get used in the event of a complete failure.
“Manitoba has had a low experience of failure,” Drysdale assured.
A Grow Bonds Corporation or other sub-corporation of the NOHFC would administer the project and work with local economic development officers, Northern Development officers, and entrepreneurs to locate, market, and allocate the funds.
The process would be straight-forward and take roughly six weeks to accomplish, according to the Manitoba model.
First, the entrepreneur would be provided assistance in creating and detailing a business plan from a local business/economic development advisor working for one of the three levels of government.
That proposal then would be forwarded to the local municipal council for approval—keeping in mind the community’s own economic development plan.
From there, the proposal would move through the Grow Bonds Corporation and the provincial regulatory body that reviews bond issues.
Finally, the minister of Northern Development and Mines signs off on the project and the bond issues are advertised. In Manitoba, bond issues are limited to 40 percent of a new business and 50 percent of an expansion.
“It’s a way to create a more dynamic economy,” Drysdale said. “It should have been something we should have looked at more than five years ago.”
Nonetheless, she’s surprised by the speed in which the program is coming to fruition. “It’s incredibly unusual for an idea to move this fast within government,” Drysdale said. “It should take years, but it’s been six months.”
Drysdale said the project has the support of most parties involved, from the Ministry of Northern Development and Mines and the NOHFC to local business groups and Chambers of Commerce.
“Even [NDP leader and local MPP] Howard Hampton isn’t upset by it,” she added.
One of the major reasons for the speed in which the grow bond issue is getting support is the provincial government’s exploration of “opportunity bonds,” run by municipalities, for infrastructure projects.
Drysdale said everything is in place for the grow bonds since legislation already has been passed for the opportunity bonds.
“The way the legislation on them [opportunity bonds] is written, it enables grow bonds,” she explained. “The minister of finance can simply sit down and write the regulations.”
Drysdale gave the ministry full credit for having the insight to allow the legislation to be open to other economic growth projects. Now she feels all that needs to be done is to convince Finance minister Janet Ecker that it’s an important issue.
“It’s fortunate that Janet Ecker is coming . . . to Thunder Bay on Jan. 21,” she said, adding it will be the perfect opportunity to discuss grow bonds with her.
“We could have grow bonds within the next year, depending on fiscal responsibilities [or] a change of government,” she said optimistically.