By HANK DANISZEWSKI, The London Free Press
In a world where companies and even countries live by their branding, Southwestern Ontario — a huge farming and manufacturing region, with 20% of Ontario’s population — often defies recognition beyond its borders. A regional economic conference in London next week will tackle that issue. Hank Daniszewski reports.
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Southwestern Ontario is more than a place. It could be a brand. One that could be sold to the world.
That's one of the goals of the South-West Economic Alliance (SWEA) assembly to be held at the London Convention Centre June 3 to 4.
It's been more than four years since area municipalities met in Stratford to forge the alliance, an economic front for the region, and SWEA chairperson Dan Mathieson said this will be a watershed meeting for the 250 delegates.
"The biggest weakness we have is that people in governments and businesses outside the region can't identify what the Southwest does. It's time to build a brand around our economy," said Mathieson, who is mayor of Stratford.
Mathieson said SWEA must counteract the perception Southwestern Ontario is no more than an extension of the American rust belt, with a sagging manufacturing sector done in by the collapse in the auto industry.
He said the region represented by SWEA has a diverse economy with a strong and evolving agricultural base and a manufacturing sector that is fighting back with new productivity and green technologies "We have some of the most fertile agricultural land in the country. We need to talk about tourism and bioscience and other things we do well," he said.
Mathieson said his own city is a classic example of image not fitting the reality. While Stratford is known internationally for its Shakespearean festival, Mathieson said the theatres have been icing on the cake for a city that has always relied on manufacturing and agriculture.
That's why the Ontario Pork Congress held in Stratford every year gets equal billing to the Stratford Festival on the city's welcome signs.
A study done for SWEA by the Richard Ivey School of Business at the University of Western Ontario analysed the economic development plans of 19 Southwestern municipalities. It showed agriculture was the top shared economic priority, followed by tourism and culture, green technology, advanced manufacturing and transportation and logistics.
Serge Lavoie was hired last August to serve as SWEA's full-time president and administrator.
Lavoie admits manufacturing and agriculture have been written off as "dead ends" by some policy markets battered by the economic downturn, the rising value of the Canadian dollar and trade policies.
But he said SWEA recognizes these sectors are still the key to the region's economic future."
"It's what we have been in the past. It's what we are still good at it and it's not going away. It's simply changed and we have to nurture those changes," he said.
Lavoie said agriculture has become a "different beast" branching out to green energy production and bioplastics. He said manufacturing is also evolving into more efficient and "green" technologies.
He said SWEA has been able to broaden its original municipal base by entering into formal partnerships with the universities including Western, Guelph, Windsor and Waterloo and Fanshawe College.
He said post-secondary institutions can provide expertise and research in business, rural economic development and engineering.
SWEA has also created a 45-member advisory council that includes representatives from businesses such as Libro Financial, Ernst & Young and SmartCentres.
Mathieson said it has taken years of meetings and debate to pull SWEA together. There was initial skepticism from municipalities such as Woodstock. And Elgin County and St. Thomas are still not members.
Mathieson said there were fears municipalities would have to surrender their economic development office to a bureaucratic regional super agency.
"We are not top-down, trying to control where development takes place. We are trying to bring the area together in a cohesive fashion to tell our story," Mathieson said.
Lavoie said SWEA has become more of a "think tank" and forum for the region's municipalities to work on common strategies.
"We have created a big tent where everyone can work together. That's very different from a super economic development agency," he said.
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