GEORGETOWN — He came to listen, and his first public roundtable on Island issues harvested opinion on everything from growing rural communities to using free internet as a carrot.
Wade MacLauchlan, the heir apparent as the next premier of P.E.I., brought his travelling roadshow to the Kings County capital Wednesday night with the theme of Prospering Rural Communities.
The new premier-in-waiting is taking the roundtable discussion around the province this month after racking up more than 6,500 kilometres in visits to every district across the Island.
“The question is how to be prosperous in rural P.E.I. and develop and continue those successes,’’ said the former educator during his welcome.
“I want to make it a part of my real effort for P.E.I. and make sure everyone knows just how much is going on in the rural area of this province.”
The roundtable panelists invited to speak included such business notables as Jason Aspin, who brought 150 jobs and his company headquarters to the Montague area in 2014 along with $50 million in sales.
Also on the panel were Scott and Esther Dockendorff, the brother/sister team that runs P.E.I. Mussel Farms and Mussel King in Red Head and Morell, one of the largest aquaculture operations in the province.
Representing the farmscape was potato grower Stephen Visser, who with his Orwell-based family, runs one of the advanced farms in the east.
“We’ve gone from grading on a piece of plywood in the basement to shipping internationally,’’ said Esther Dockendorff. “What I would like to stress here to everyone is that we have a tremendous work force and it takes a community to build a successful company . . . .and for that we are grateful.”
Selling a rural P.E.I. lifestyle was no problem for the panelists; so why more open air folk aren’t heading “down the road” to the million-acre sandbar proved perplexing.
Aspin said there were many reasons for relocating from Ontario to the place where he grew up and went to high school.
He cited lifestyle, ease of travel, and an open ear from government.
“There are challenges of course being on an Island, but there are advantages as well . . . like the lifestyle and the proximity to an airport that can take you anywhere.”
MacLauchlan told the 100 people in attendance that he was an advocate for entrepreneurial leadership and said the Island economy is so dependent on trade that more economics drivers are needed and welcome.
“One challenge we have is population, both in the size and the aging character,’’ he said. “So we want to try and bring people back, and welcome newcomers as well.”
He pointed out that countless rural operations can employ from half a dozen people to well over 100 skilled workers, but sometimes lack the profile of a capital city pedigree.
The first roundtable is an extension of MacLauchlan’s appreciation of the Georgetown Conference held here two years ago when he was a guest and unofficial participant.
That conference focused on growing the rural economies of Atlantic Canada.
Questions from the audience focused on everything from implementing entrepreneurial courses in high school, a closer look at reviving the forestry industry, and ensuring that free internet is a business staple across the province.
MacLauchlan said the current low Canadian dollar and declining oil prices could help stimulate new growth in the province, even though it will affect job loss in Alberta.
“However, those people who may be laid off from the west might see a door opening for new opportunities here and a chance to be closer to their families,’’ suggested Rollo Bay farmer Ray Keenan during the Q+A.
Freelance columnist Al Holman suggested in the discussion process that the obesity of the provincial government might also be something for fresh faces to consider.
And while few wanted to touch that bunion, Aspin gave it a thumbs up.
On Saturday, Jan. 17, a roundtable on young Leaders and entrepreneurs will be held at the Mill River Resort starting at 3:30 p.m.