An equal digital playing field

Rural Ontario often appears to be an afterthought for upper levels government when it comes to things like infrastructure spending. This is nothing new to anyone who has lived in rural Eastern Ontario. However, there’s a more recent type of infrastructure that’s becoming even more and more critical and it’s even completely non-existent in some rural areas. That infrastructure is broadband (high-speed) internet service.

When most people think of infrastructure, they usually think of roads, bridges and water resource systems etc. One could argue that broadband has become just as important and that governments should be investing significant amounts of money in it as well. You may be thinking that cities and towns are already serviced by private internet providers of all shapes and sizes from Bell to Joe Computer, so why does government need to spend tax dollars on this? Unfortunately, a business case can’t be made for private companies to install fiber optics networks (which carry broadband) in rural areas where there may be sparse populations and significant distances between customers. However, just because private enterprise won’t do it, doesn’t mean that there’s still not a very serious need for it.

There are many reasons why it’s important to invest in broadband for rural areas. From making it difficult to sell a house or property that has no access to reliable high-speed internet, to reducing agricultural technology options for farms and agricultural businesses that could dramatically help them improve efficiency and reduce costs. Due to the fact that the internet has become so critical in so many aspects of our lives, it stands to reason that a lack of broadband could contribute to the demise of rural communities because they will become less desirable to live, work and operate a business in. Some would argue that it’s happening now. We’re already losing smaller family farms as some members of the next generation choose a different career and life path. We need to attract new people to the rural areas and encourage them to begin farming and start their own businesses.

With the rapid advancement of technology, a whole new industrial revolution is believed to be taking place (called “Industry 4.0” according to BDC Economist Pierre Cleroux). This means that with broadband internet service, small to mid-size businesses could potentially consider non-traditional (rural) areas to invest in because of the relatively low price of land. Plainly, this won’t happen without broadband service which has become an absolute must-have in the business world. In other words, rural Ontario is being left behind and is at a serious disadvantage in trying to attract investment, create jobs and cultivate economic growth. It is challenging enough these days for rural areas, but when you can’t access essential services like high-speed internet, it makes it incredibly difficult to encourage any type of growth or even maintain what already exists.

There are areas of North Grenville that currently don’t have high-speed internet. Knowing how important this is to economic and residential development, you would think it would be one of the key topics of conversation at the council table both at the United Counties of Leeds and Grenville and in North Grenville itself. Without broadband, the economic advantage that the larger urban areas enjoy will only continue to grow and the rural areas will be further left behind.

The official plan – a resident’s guide

The Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing defines an official plan as “An official plan describes your municipal council’s policies on how land in your community should be used. It is prepared with input from you and others in your community and helps to ensure that future planning and development will meet the specific needs of your community”. Sounds like exciting stuff, right? Well, it may not be exciting, but it sure is important and you may not realize how important it is until you run into a situation like a local business did recently.

Just some of the reasons why an official plan is needed are:

  • Let’s the public know what the municipality’s land use planning policies are.
  • Helps residents of a community understand how their land may be used now and in the future.
  • Helps decide where roads, watermains, sewers, landfills, parks and other services will be built.
  • Provides a framework for establishing municipal zoning bylaws to set local regulations and standards, like the size of lots and the height of buildings.
  • Provides a way to evaluate and settle conflicting land uses while meeting local, regional and provincial interests.

Why is this important to the average resident of North Grenville? Consider these two scenarios:

  • You own a home which is beside a big empty piece of property. You love the peace and quiet of your home. You wake up one morning to a bunch of heavy machinery digging up the property next to you. You remember seeing a letter about something, but you were busy and forgot to go back and read it. You eventually find out that a big new building is being built there and that the property is about to become a gravel pit with heavy trucks coming and going all day long. You immediately get upset about this violation of the tranquility and potential loss of value of your property. Then you find out through the municipality that the big piece of property has been approved for these types of uses since the last official plan and that there’s little that you can do to stop this construction.
  • You own a business and the property that it operates on. Your business has become successful and is growing to the point that you realize that you’re going to have to expand your building to accommodate this new business growth. You go to the municipal offices to get a building permit and you’re told that you can’t expand your building because the area that your property is in is now zoned as residential, not commercial, due to zoning bylaw changes from the last official plan. You also find out that your property is ‘legal non-conforming’. This means that operating your current business on your property is legal, despite the fact that it does not conform to permitted uses in the current zoning bylaw. Nevertheless you’re officially ‘non-conforming’ which means that zoning bylaws can limit your ability to repair or renovate your building or may even limit how you can use your property.

It’s critical that residents understand how these types of plans can impact their day-to-day lives, their businesses, their future plans, their ability to enjoy or utilize their own property and their personal finances. Being unaware of the contents of the official plan and its potential impacts on you could possibly cost you tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars. It might also cost you your dream of starting a business, raising chickens on your property or building that ‘ultimate workshop’ that you’ve always wanted.

Though the period for public consultation has expired, if you have any questions, email Planner Phil Mosher at or call 613-258-9569 ext. 118.


Creating a youth council

Early in 2016, I wrote an arrticle about some ideas that I hoped that North Grenville Municipal Council would consider implementing for the good of all residents. One of these ideas recently came up again in a conversation with Councillor Jim Bertram who was very supportive of it. The idea in question was for the municipality to develop a Youth Council that would allow young people to contribute to decisions that are made in the municipality by our regular Council.

Last fall Councillor Bertram visited both local high schools, North Grenville District High School and St. Michael Catholic High School. On his visits, he talked about the role of municipal government and how it affects the daily lives of residents of North Grenville including the young people he was talking to. He spoke briefly with administration at both schools about the possibility of some students becoming part of a Youth Council.

While recently reading a book called “13 Ways To Kill Your Community” by Doug Griffiths, I noticed that  the author dedicated chapter three of the thirteen chapter book to the subject of “Don’t Engage Youth” as one of the thirteen ways. The author pointed out how youth (age 35 and under are considered youth by the author) should be disengaged to ensure the death of your community. He believes that sometimes communities don’t recognize that youth have an abundance of energy, creativity and passion without being jaded by bad experiences, failures and the negativity of others. He added that when chances for youth to contribute are limited or if residents talk negatively about youth, then they’re on the right track to ensure that the best and brightest young people look to leave and the future of your community will leave with them.

A Youth Council would be a great way to engage young people (let’s say 30 and under), show them that the community does believe that they have a lot to contribute and give them a way to directly impact the future of the municipality. People who are engaged and personally invested in something are much more likely to ensure that the ‘something’ becomes successful, no matter what age they are. Let’s allow our young people to use their imaginations, skills and their energy for something truly meaningful.

So how do we make this happen? Let’s for a moment consider filling this council with two students each from the two local high schools with the schools themselves deciding how the students get chosen. Then we add three other young people who could apply and be chosen by a committee. At that point, a youth mayor could be chosen by vote of the youth council itself which would mean six councillors and one mayor. The young people who make up the council could learn: how local government works, how to conduct meetings in a professional environment, how to work together to forward ideas, how to read formal reports and how to communicate effectively in a formal setting. The youth council could meet weekly, biweekly or monthly in the North Grenville Council chambers and discuss and vote on key council matters that might directly affect young people or that might impact the future of the municipality. From these meetings formal recommendations could be made that would be forwarded directly to regular council and be accepted the same as recommendations from other committees of council.

Quite often politicians make generalized statements about the importance of youth to their communities, regions, provinces and countries. For some of them, their actual support of youth begins and ends with those statements. This is a rare opportunity to truly make a profound effort to be inclusive and recognize that young people can play a vital role in not only our future, but also in our present. Tomorrow’s great ideas could be grown in our community today. Let’s give them some sunlight.

Recognizing Youth Leaders

Last year, the Kemptville Youth Centre (KYC) lost its leader and architect to a better career opportunity. Former Executive Director Robin Heald was a visionary, who left KYC in a much better financial, organizational and strategic position than when she walked in the door that first day. One of her decisions in particular, seems to be having a major impact on KYC. That decision was the hiring of programming coordinator Bridget Manahan.

If you walk in the door of KYC today and look around, you’ll see youth talking, laughing, playing, using the computers or doing some other kind of supervised activity. If you walked into KYC last year at this time, you would notice an immediate difference, there are more youth now coming to KYC. Since last year, there’s been no significant difference in programming or any other obvious reason for the increase in attendance. The only common factor from last year to this year is Bridget.

For anyone who has spent any amount of time with Bridget, you’ll quickly come to understand why she is so good at what she does. Her ability to communicate effectively with youth on their level, while still retaining their respect, is impressive and appears to come naturally. Her compassion, commitment to youth and work ethic have helped to create a welcoming and structured environment that youth seem to be attracted to.

Too often when we think of community leaders, we think of people over 40 or older. Young people get overlooked because they’re perceived as not having enough experience, or they haven’t developed the right skills yet or haven’t “paid their dues”. Learning to recognize potential leaders (no matter what their age), is a very important factor for successful companies, organizations and communities. Succession planning is an essential survival skill that will help to ensure the future of any group. Bridget Manahan is a leader.

There’s only one Bridget Manahan. She’s unique, wonderful and exactly the type of young leader that we need. There are other young leaders in our community too, who if recognized and supported, could become leaders of North Grenville and not just in 30 plus years from now. In Bridget, I see an excellent founding member of a North Grenville Youth Council that could be one part of helping to cultivate young leaders. You probably know a young leader too. Why not secure this precious resource instead of telling them that there’s nothing here for them and watching them walk away? Would we let someone else take our water from us without a fight? It’s time to start fighting to secure our most precious resource.

Local agri-food tourism – Part 1

Local Agri-Food Tourism

Herding fifty adults onto a bus is no easy task. Not even when all of those same adults are excited about the bus’s destination. Just outside the bus we’re all milling about talking amongst ourselves ‘networking’, which might be the single most important part of this trip, but we’ll talk about that another time. When the bus is finally loaded, the door closes and our group heads off on a local agri-food tour around the Bay of Quinte area.

Our first stop is not far away, it’s at a production facility called Sprague Foods Ltd. In Belleville. The company produces mostly private label food products for American and Canadian markets including for Walmart and Loblaws (PC Blue Menu and PC Organics). The facility is about the size of a big box retail store and employs approximately eighty people. This family run business buys its raw materials from as many Canadian sources as possible remarks Richard Sprague who is the president and tour conductor. In fact, he said that he wished that they could buy everything from Canada and has been searching for a large Canadian producer of pulses (beans etc.) for some time.

The second stop on the tour was to the newly opened Barn Owl Malt craft malting business just outside of Belleville. The Huffman family takes great pride in malting Ontario grown grains and despite just starting out, they are already looking to increase their production. Using a facility about the size of a triple car garage, the Huffmans use a food grade cement floor to do their traditional floor malting process. Malted grains are used by the craft brewing industry and many Ontario craft brewers have to import them from other countries and provinces. Barn Owl Malt is currently the only malting business in Eastern Ontario, which seems bizarre because of the explosion of the craft brewing industry in Ontario and the extremely high demand for malted grains.

The next stop was just south of Tweed at the Enright Cattle Company. These local beef producers raise red and black Simmental cattle on an all-vegetable diet without the use of hormones. While walking through their barn and pasture field, Kara Enright told the group that the family business is able to plant, grow and harvest all of the feed for their cattle. Kara also outlined the past financial struggles of the business and up until a few years ago both her and her husband had to work away from the farm to make ends meet. With the help of some government resources, they decided to change their business model by shifting from supplying to a meat wholesale operation at low profit, to selling directly to their own customers making higher profit. Kara said that this new approach turned their business around dramatically.

The fourth stop on the tour was to Potter Settlement Wines, which was also just outside of Tweed and the only winery in all of Hastings County. Though not currently open to the public, this boutique winery has been selling their wines to high end restaurants mostly in the Northern U.S. with prices as high as $200 per bottle. Hidden in one of the most unlikely areas for a winery, right at the edge of the Canadian Shield region, this family owned winery is experiencing rapid growth but strives to maintain it’s approach to making only the highest quality wines. Tour conductor and former soap opera actor Sandor Johnson said that the land had been in his family since the early 1800’s. Needless to say there were many smiling faces boarding the bus after doing tastings of several of their excellent wines.

The final stop of the tour may have been the most fascinating, but had the least appeal to the senses. When the bus pulled into the long laneway at Donnandale Farms north of Belleville, just outside of the village of Stirling, it appeared to be a typical larger scale dairy farm. However, the actual reason for this tour stop was to highlight their two anaerobic digesters which convert biomass (biodegradable waste – used cooking oil, animal waste etc.) into electricity at a rate of about 750 kilowatts per hour. The electricity is then sold through their Feed In Tariff contract back to their hydro supplier at .02 per kw/hr higher than what they would pay for it. Family patriarch Keith led the tour and remarked that despite all of the money required to pay for the equipment, he anticipated that because of the sales of the large volume of electricity produced, the equipment would be paid for within three years. The electricity produced by the farm could supply energy to as many as 1500 homes.

Later that night I thought back to the day and what I had learned. The first thing that I learned was that there are currently several diverse business opportunities in the agri-food industry in Eastern Ontario. I also learned about how a family was able to turn their business around with the help of resources that are available to all agri-food businesses. Finally, I learned that the tour that I just went on represented approximately $5000 in revenue for those local agri-food businesses. In worldwide tourism spending, one third of all tourism dollars are spent on food. Local agri-food tourism not only generates money for the businesses they visit, it indirectly provides marketing for both the businesses involved & the region and it educates people about agriculture and food. For these reasons and more, agri-food tourism is a very important piece in any strong local food system. Who’s got a bus?