Norfolk mayor elected chair of rural economic development corporation

The mayor of Norfolk County has been tabbed to head a non-profit organization that fosters economic co-operation between rural counties in southern Ontario.

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Amy Martin was elected chair of the South Central Ontario Region Economic Development Corporation board of directors during SCOR’s annual general meeting on Feb. 29 at the organization’s Tillsonburg headquarters.

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“Our focus is on action-oriented economic development,” SCOR executive director Kimberly Earls told The Hamilton Spectator, listing workforce training and education, securing infrastructure funding, and supporting industries like manufacturing and farming as among the organization’s top priorities.

In a statement, Martin said she would focus on “collaboration and innovative resource planning” between the governments of Brant, Elgin, Middlesex, Norfolk and Oxford counties, which collectively own SCOR.

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“The last two years have been tough years for municipalities in terms of budget,” Martin said.

“We are taking advantage of regional expertise and resource-sharing to ensure we are providing taxpayers the best bang for their buck while still being smart planners for future growth.”

Martin told The Spectator she took the job to advocate for the needs of the five municipalities — which represent one-third of Ontario’s rural population — and amplify Norfolk’s appeal to Ottawa and Queen’s Park for help with infrastructure funding.

SCOR emerged in 2010 as rural municipalities coped with manufacturing job losses and the decline of the once-lucrative tobacco industry.

The five founding counties banded together to attract new investment to diversify the economy and more persuasively petition higher levels of government.

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Today the region counts more than one million year-round residents living on 2.4 million acres, of which 1.5 million is working farmland.

“This region is experiencing a lot of growth and a lot of interest, especially post-pandemic, in both residential and industrial,” Earls said.

“We’re seeing a fairly significant migration from urban centers into our region. And that’s great, but with it does come some challenges.”

SCOR shares region-specific labor and demographic data with workforce planning boards and post-secondary institutions like Fanshawe College — which has four campuses within SCOR’s boundaries — to ensure job training “is viable and needed” by businesses in search of skilled workers, Earls said .

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Members also collectively advocate for funding for “cross-jurisdictional” infrastructure solutions, such as affordable energy projects, an intercounty transit system, and maximizing industrial use of the short-line railway between St. Thomas and western Norfolk.

“SCOR was created to look at those regional, large-scale infrastructure requirements,” Earls said.

“And SCOR’s role has been to open the doors for our county partners to build relationships and to build our case.”

With thousands of farms and agri-food businesses within the five counties, boosting the agricultural sector while balancing “competing land pressures” is of great importance, Earls said.

SCOR supports preserving farmland while taking a targeted approach to building on marginal land — such as areas with poor soil or near existing development — that could support housing without hampering food production.

“We have some of the best land, but there are smaller parcels on individual farms that would be appropriate for residential development or other uses,” Earls said.

JP Antonacci is a Local Journalism Initiative Reporter based at the Hamilton Spectator. The initiative is funded by the Government of Canada.

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