By Laura Barton
Roughly 350 people gathered at White Oaks Resort and Spa in Niagara-on-the-Lake on Thursday for the Greater Niagara Chamber of Commerce (GNCC) Niagara Economic Summit.
It was the sixth year for the event, which saw people from various sectors, including businesses, municipalities and non-profits, come together to hear speakers and participate in panel discussions about Niagara’s economic future.
By the end of the event, Mishka Balsom, president and executive officer of the GNCC, said the common themes from the day’s discussions were collaboration, economic system of partnerships, risk raking and flexibility.
The goal of the summit, she said, is to connect Niagara to facilitate business growth and stronger economy in Niagara in the near and distant future.
“Are we prepared for tomorrow and the industries of tomorrow? Are we set up to succeed tomorrow? Are we creating prosperity for tomorrow?” she said were the main questions under the magnifying glass throughout the day.
The summit was split into three sections to discuss this, starting with “accelerating innovation for jobs and growth,” then moving on to “international trade in the age of uncertainty” before capping off the day with “the next 150 years – transformational change.”
Each section had a variety of speakers and panelists to share their own insights and thoughts on these topics, ranging from people such as Niagara Region’s CAO Carmen D’Angelo to the senior vice-president of Strategy and Corporate Marketing at Canada Post, Len Diplock.
The reactions from the crowd were mixed, based on their applause or lack thereof, but a group of Grade 11 and 12 business students from Eden High School in St. Catharines thoroughly enjoyed the day. They were brought there by business teacher Holly Etherington as a part of the class.
While they weren’t sure what they would get out of it going in, Adam Letham, Connor Hendriks, Austin Val Tol and Rocco Del Duca had a lot of takeaways at the end of the summit.
They each noted how eye-opening the talks were, especially in regards to what the region has to offer and the way that business in Niagara looks.
Hendriks, Grade 11, said he was impressed to see the attention paid to youth and learned a lot about what opportunities were available in Niagara. He said he used to think he might be one of those students that graduates and goes elsewhere for post-secondary and a career, but now he’s reconsidering and may stay in Niagara.
Del Duca, Grade 11, said he got a better sense of employer expectations during the first section of the summit, which touched on jobs.
Diplock, who was the final solo speaker for the day, spoke about how to keep up with changing technology and customer needs and trends. He said they’ve especially seen this at Canada Post as they’ve had to deal with people sending fewer letters and more emails. One way he said they’ve adapted is by introducing parcel service since people are still utilising that.
He said all businesses will need to be able to adapt, collaborate and try to prepare for whatever future may come – although with the latter he feels changes happen so quickly that it’s nearly impossible to do so. Preparing instead how to deal with frequent and rapid change is the best bet, he said.
United States President Donald Trump was mentioned several times, in particular during the trade discussions. Considering Trump’s desires to renegotiate or even be rid of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), conversation turned to how Niagara might deal with that situation.
One panelist, Damon Piatek, founder, president and CEO of Welke Customes Brokers USA Inc. said he thinks there isn’t any need to worry about NAFTA because of how successful it is.
On the same panel, Dean Wood, founder of Borderworx, said it’s about making sure trade can continue.
“We don’t need a wall,” he said. “What we are needing is bridge access and we need to make sure it flows.”
The summit rounded off with talks about what 150 years into the future might look like and how to prepare for the changing social, political, financial and economic atmospheres. Del Duca felt that 150 years might be too far to look ahead, but agreed that these are discussions that need to be had to prepare for his and coming generations’ futures.
Balsom said that during the summit, the GNCC takes notes and collects comment cards from people in the audience. In doing so, she said it gives the chamber a starting point as to what people are concerned or thinking about, then, if possible, it can work on addressing those thoughts and concerns.