ANTIGONISH: Nova Scotia’s Regional Enterprise Networks (RENs) are hoping to work together to find new ways of growing the local economy.

On May 29, RENs from throughout the province came together in Antigonish for a roundtable discussion on regional opportunities and challenges in business.

“We try to meet yearly as a group and look at collaborative opportunities. This year it was The Eastern Strait Regional Enterprise Network’s (ESREN’s) turn to host, so we were happy to do that,” said ESREN CEO John Beaton.

The meeting was attended by representatives from the Valley, Cape Breton, Western, and South Shore RENs, as well as the Truro and Colchester Partnership for Economic Prosperity, and the Cumberland Business Connector.

“We learned that some of the problems that we are faced with rurally are not unique to us. Across the province, there are similar issues and challenges,” said Beaton.

One concern for business stakeholders throughout Nova Scotia is access to high speed Internet service.

“Pretty much all of us have challenges in our area with accessing broadband coverage and it’s limiting business growth and attraction,” said Beaton.

Guest speaker, Monique Arsenault from the Nova Scotia Department of Business, attended last week’s meeting to discuss the province’s broadband strategy. In March, the provincial government announced an investment of $120 million to be put into a trust to improve access to broadband in Nova Scotia. Beaton said RENs hope to partner with local municipalities, as well as Internet Service Providers to apply for funding through the trust. He said he expects the funds to open up within the next two months.

Labour force issues were another focus of last week’s meeting. Beaton said many businesses are having difficulty finding workers to fill specific jobs.

“These are very specific areas, such as a skilled trade or something like that, rather than general labour,” said Beaton. “We’re finding that to be a provincial issue and we’re looking at finding opportunities to address it, whether it is through grad retention, immigration, or looking at opportunities for retired folks to re-enter the workforce.”

Another opportunity that was discussed was Canada’s Ocean Super Cluster initiative, a partnership between the federal government and private sector to foster innovation across ocean sectors.

“It’s looking at opportunities to modernize fisheries and work with all the ocean players to advance those opportunities that several of the RENs have from being located close to the ocean,” Beaton said.

Participants also discussed communication and government relations and attended a presentation by the Department of Municipal Affairs.

“Generally speaking, all of the provincial reps there are very engaged in what the RENs are doing,” Beaton said.

Recently, several Strait area municipalities including the Municipality of the District of Guysborough, the town and county of Antigonish, the Town of Port Hawkesbury, and the District of St. Mary’s sent letters of notice to ESREN, leaving the option open should they decide to leave the organization in the coming year.

Beaton said the ESREN is working with municipalities and developing ongoing strategies to allow more municipal input.

“Our talks with municipal partners are going very well, and we’re feeling very positive about our direction,” said Beaton.

Beaton said the next step is to create a report based on the outcomes of last week’s discussions, and added that REN leaders hope to meet more regularly to discuss ongoing challenges and plans.

“We’re also looking forward to our Partners for Progress Conference that’s happening in early September in Digby,” Beaton said. “That’s where we bring together all of the RENs and provide project updates and involve our business and municipal partners so they can be part of the ongoing discussions.”