Publication:

The Amherst News - 2020-03-25

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Lessons from Yarmouth Web.com closing

OPINION

Alan Walter Alan Walter is a retired professional engineer living in Oxford. He was born in Wales and worked in Halifax. He spends much of his time in Oxford, where he operates a small farm. He can be reached at alanwalter@eastlink.ca.

Recently the Town of Yarmouth was informed by Web.com that their customer service centre in the town would cease operations by mid-year, putting around 200 employees out of work. It was quite a blow to the region’s economy. Can you imagine the impact of Amherst suffering such a loss? Once a major shipbuilding centre, Yarmouth’s livelihood now depends on a variety of activities focusing on pulpwood, food products, tourism and shipping and ferry services. The town’s population hit its peak in the 1960s at around 8,500 but has since declined to 6,500 as economic activity fell off. That's a trend its economic development team is out to reverse. Much like Amherst, with an eye on tourism and attracting new businesses, the town has put a lot of effort into freshening up the townscape with a “Downtown Façade” Program, a Waterfront Development action plan, and a Heritage Properties Incentive program that provides some financial support for property owners to assist in renovations to their properties. Some 18 years ago, Web.com, a U.S.-based Internet service provider showed up in Yarmouth to establish the first of several similar Canadian operations that over time grew to its current size. The company’s business was to provide Internet domain name registration and web development services, catering to small and medium-size businesses. Explaining their sudden decision to leave Yarmouth, Web.com said that it now serves millions of customers around the globe and "our business needs are continually evolving." The truth is that in recent years Web.com had grown to 3,500 employees worldwide, and the Yarmouth operation had become a victim of consolidation of their operations, in spite of the excellent job that those 200 Yarmouth employees had no doubt performed over the years. WHAT ARE THE LESSONS? So, what lessons can we learn from this serious setback? Particularly considering our own towns and county are preparing to elect a new slate of municipal leaders who will be counted on to drive more economic growth in our region? First, it's clear that investment of our time and expense to attracting businesses to locate in our community demands smart choices of potential partners. I’m sure Web.com has been an exemplary employer in many respects, but it made little investment in local business assets to help keep it around; it was all too easy for the company to pack up and depart at any time, leaving nothing to salvage of the operation. The building where Web.com was located is owned by the municipality with the lease expiring in July. Aside from call-centre furniture and computer hardware very little needed to be written off. Second, both Amherst and Yarmouth continue to suffer from declining and aging worker populations, and skilled “human capital” is at a premium. Citing a need for skilled resources to develop and implement future economic growth plans, while 200 capable individuals are engaged in non-strategic lines of work such as call centres, doesn’t seem to make much sense given what else needs to be taken on. Finally, when towns like Yarmouth and Amherst make decisions on what future opportunities for economic growth will be pursued, those choices must be based on realistic assessments of their strengths and recognize capabilities that are superior to other competing communities. What are the competitive advantages we can exploit in new ventures that allow us to win out over other communities? Was Yarmouth gifted with such superior call centre performance that ever closing it down would be unthinkable? Of course not, because call centres go where it makes short-term commercial sense, not because towns like Yarmouth have God-given talents in that line of work that sets them apart. And it's up to us and our elected officials to identify those unique gifts that we know we have, and need to exploit, to realize healthy economic growth.

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