Attracting new people to Amherst is as big a priority for the town’s business development officer as bringing new jobs to the community.
Rebecca Taylor said 2019 Community Economic Analysis shows the town’s population growth has stagnated in recent years indicating a real impetus has to placed on bringing new people to town.
“The analysis says population attraction is our Number 1 priority. At this point business attraction is not a focus area. We can’t recruit businesses to our town until we’re sure we have enough people to be able to staff them,” Taylor told the Amherst News. “Our labour pool is too small.”
Taylor said population attraction is a multi-faceted thing and it’s not going to happen overnight. She said the town needs to seen as appealing for people to live in with amenities and services. When compared to similar-size towns like Yarmouth, Truro and Bridgewater, she said, Amherst is beginning to fall behind in having some of those amenities.
“We also need to make sure we’re still focused on events that will retain people and draw people to the town,” she said. “We have to make sure we continue to have a vibrant downtown. All of the economy of Amherst is important, including the uptown (South Albion Street area) and the industrial park, the downtown is important for attraction and retention. You have to have a vibrant evening and weekend place and we need to make sure we’re retaining young people.”
Taylor said the town needs to work with students in both the public school system and the Nova Scotia Community College to encourage them to consider Amherst as their lifelong home once they complete their education.
Tourism, she said, is also important.
“It’s essential in the short-term and the long-term. The businesses who are here right now need that money,” Taylor said. “If we can increase our tourism revenue from $3 million to $11 million that’s not only going to support existing businesses, it’s going to attract new businesses to fill some of our empty spaces.”
Tourism, she said, is the front door to economic development in business development and population attraction. She said, in some cases, visitors to a community are so impressed they decide to find a way to move there.
“Business owners go on vacation too,” she said. “We have to show them when they’re here what a vibrant community Amherst is.”
She said business analysis such as the 2019 plan is important because the data collected gives an accurate picture of what’s happening. Listening to word on the street doesn’t always give a true story of how the town is performing economically.
“When you look at the data, we’re not an old community and we’re not a community of unemployment. We actually have very little unemployment. There are jobs for people who want them,” she said. “We are doing very well, but many of the businesses in town are struggling because there are not enough people to sustain the jobs and to shop.”
The town has amazing potential as retail centre, she said, adding Amherst has more people living within a 150-km radius than any other municipality in the Maritimes with 1.1 million people within that area, compared to just over a million for Truro, 816,000 for Moncton and 775,000 for New Glasgow.
She suggests Amherst survey its employers to identify whether recruitment and retention challenges exist and develop a strategy to attract working-age people from elsewhere in Canada or around the world.
A housing survey will determine potential real estate needs and use the town’s appealing housing options as an advantage to recruit new residents, while Taylor also feels the town needs to conduct business retention and expansion visits to identify economic development strategies to support future growth in strong sectors and assist important sectors that are struggling.
Along with attracting new residents, Taylor said the town needs to conduct a business mix analysis, analyze the success of thriving communities that share similar characteristics with Amherst while also developing a targeted business recruitment strategy and implement strategies to increase visitor spending.