SWEA chair – Sarnia-Lambton a bright spot

By Cathy Dobson, The Observer

Carving up the pie

The federal government is making $1 billion available for economic development in southern Ontario and Sarnia and its neighbours must work together to spend it properly.

So says Stratford Mayor Dan Mathieson, who spoke to about 70 community leaders here Tuesday about the region’s future. Sarnia-Lambton has diversified enough to weather the recession better than many communities in southwestern Ontario, Mathieson said. “Across the region, we have bright spots and you are one of them. London is withstanding the economic downturn too, but other areas are suffering greatly.”

He declined to pinpoint the most troubled centres but said each assembly job represents another seven pre-assembly jobs. Communities that rely heavily on manufacturing face the biggest challenges, said Mathieson, who chairs the Southwest Economic Alliance. SWEA is a relatively new group of municipalities, businesses, industries, colleges and universities that formed to develop the regional economy as a united front. Southwest Ontario communities worked unilaterally for too long to attract investment, but now there’s a new way of thinking, Mathieson said. In the past, individual communities celebrated their own successes, bragged about them and kept helpful information secretive, he said. “We can’t continue to do what we’ve always done.”

Sarnia and Lambton County belong to SWEA along with 10 other municipalities and counties in the triangle bounded by Grey County to the north, Haldimand in the south and Lambton to the west.

SWEA hopes to be at the table when Ottawa doles out $200 million annually for five years through the SODA (Southern Ontario Development Agency), created to distribute the $1 billion. Mathieson said SWEA believes the money is best invested in big projects like bridge improvements or new and emerging economies like solar development and biofuel research. “Infrastructure spending on communities, like the Canada Build fund, is great, but fixing washrooms and putting new sewers in the ground doesn’t change the economy,” he said. “It just means you have a nicer place to live when you are unemployed.”

Mayor Mike Bradley agreed, saying he’d like the SODA money spent on “the big picture,” like upgrading the hydro corridor to structurally build up the region.

Provincial and federal bureaucrats meet this week with SODA to discuss how the money should best be used and Mathieson expects more information within 30 to 60 days. Mathieson was speaking at the annual general meeting of the Sarnia- Lambton Economic Partnership, held at the Holiday Inn.

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