Can cannabis bring year-round jobs to cottage country?

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When Alycia Walker worked as a publicist at an agency in downtown Toronto, she yearned to trade the towers and traffic for trees and tranquillity without giving up her marketing career.

“My husband and I were looking to get out of the city,” she says. “He owns his own landscaping company and we’ve been long-time cottagers in Muskoka, so we were always looking for an opportunity. I just honestly never thought it would come.”

Walker rejoiced when one of the agency’s clients, Muskoka Grown, needed a marketing manager a few hours north of the city, in cottage country. She and her husband have lived in the region for about a year now, and the self-proclaimed cottager says they’re part of a burgeoning community of former urbanites — thanks in part to the cannabis industry.

Bracebridge town council and Mayor Graydon Smith want to see even more of these stories. They’re officially welcoming cannabis entrepreneurs — especially if the industry can bring manufacturing jobs back to the area.

“Our council has taken the position that we are open for business,” says Randy Mattice, manager of economic development in the town of Bracebridge. “It’s a legitimate Canadian venture now, and we are supportive of it.”

From 2002 to 2008, the province of Ontario lost 200,000 manufacturing jobs, most of which were never destined to return. The automotive industry was hit the hardest. In 2006, auto component-maker Dura Automotive Systems Inc., filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. By the next year, they announced plans to sell two of its businesses and close four plants, one of which was in Bracebridge. Dura’s restructuring plan resulted in a total of 416 jobs lost.

We want cannabis businesses in our community, says Randy Mattice, manager of economic development in the town of Bracebridge

“When the recession hit, we lost a lot of manufacturing industry in our community,” Mattice continues, “and we consider [cannabis] a manufacturing process so it’s bringing manufacturing back and those tend to be higher-paying jobs. We want cannabis businesses in our community.”

Welcoming new economic development to the area

Mattice says that he’s seen a positive impact created by Muskoka Grown, which sits in a purpose-built facility on a property that, for 32 years, housed Alcan Aluminum. In the heart of downtown Bracebridge, the Muskoka Grown Community Hub serves as an interactive cannabis education centre and market. The 19+ centre allows visitors to learn the basics about the plant, its history and its applications.

While Muskoka Grown’s 65,000-square-foot facility was being built, Mattice says that the company hired the services of more than 25 businesses, creating temporary work for more than 150 skilled professionals, most of them local. Since opening in 2013, the company has created 60 full-time jobs with more to come when the licensed facility reaches full production capacity.

Cannabis trimming jobs don’t pay as well as the manufacturing roles that disappeared across the province during the last recession. Photo: Lars Hagberg/AFP via Getty Images

Andrea Grand, director of marketing and brand, said that local talent accounts for about 80 percent of their current workforce, including former residents who moved back to the area. “We did run a job fair last November,” she says, “and we had about 250 people show up, and we had barely any advertisement for that. It was just through our channels, word of mouth, and [online] job postings like on Indeed. We had people travel everywhere from Ottawa, Toronto, as well as the local workforce.”

When it comes to compensation and benefits, can indoor grows truly replace manufacturing roles? Cannabis production jobs are typically the lowest-paying within the organization. While the cost of living in Bracebridge isn’t what it is in Toronto, it is still six percent higher than the national average.

Manufacturing engineers in the Muskoka–Kawarthas Region earn between $20.03 per hour and $51.28 per hour. That’s on par with the rest of Ontario, but slightly below the average for Canada. For cannabis production, the highest paying position advertised online at time of publication was at Stevens Green in Fort Erie, paying $17 per hour for new cultivation technicians. This compares with an average hourly rate for Canadian labour in 2018 of about $28.76 per hour for full-time employees and $19.05 per hour for part-time employees.

Bring on more cannabis

In September, Muskoka Grown was approved by Health Canada to move forward with a $10-million expansion that will bring the facility to full capacity. The expansion will complete the facility, totalling 21 hydroponic rooms, along with a full-scale laboratory and an area designated for research and development. The large-scale laboratory and research and development room will provide Muskoka Grown with the opportunity to set up an advanced breeding program to produce proprietary strains.

The Muskoka Grown Community Hub at 77 Manitoba St., in downtown Bracebridge plays host to workshops and other community events like markets. Photo: courtesy of Muskoka Grown

Bracebridge initially opted to allow cannabis retailers. In the first lottery, a total of 84 applications for cannabis retail operations came from addresses in Huntsville, Bracebridge, Parry Sound and Haliburton. However, the province’s expression of interest lottery for retail licence applications was open only to municipalities with 50,000 people or more. With a population of just 16,010, the town won’t qualify.

“We’re only 16,000, and in the summer season, we get up towards 25,000 when you consider the seasonal population that comes in,” says Mattice. “Then if you look at the district of Muskoka, the year-round population is about 60,000, and then in the summertime, it grows to about 100,000, so initially under the first set of guidelines we wouldn’t have been able to have a retail store.”

No retail licences were issued anywhere in the Muskoka area during the first or second lottery. But town officials are ready with preliminary plans for cannabis  store locations if retail were  to come to Bracebridge.

The provincial government has plans to introduce a farm gate model allowing weed stores at production facilities. Grand says she is looking forward to knowing more about the timeline for this proposed plan but thinks it’s another opportunity for job-seekers: “…everything from store manager down to budtender and everything in between.”

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