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Communities of Opportunity: Hearst

Community shifting focus to fostering entrepreneurship to stabilize economy

In 2017, the Town of Hearst is embarking on a new approach to entrepreneurialism to ensure its stability and longevity into the future.

Situated along Highway 11, the francophone town of 5,000 has direct access to the CN Rail line, which runs east to Montreal, west to Vancouver, and south to New Orleans. Sawmills owned by Tembec and Columbia Forest Products remain the largest employers in town. 

But with changing demographics in recent years, the town recognizes the need to diversify, and in 2016 embarked on a new approach to economic development.

Twelve partners signed a declaration committing to developing Hearst into an entrepreneurial community, noted Sylvie Fontaine, director general at the Hearst Economic Development Corp. (EDC), and this year the community is following up with a campaign that actively puts an emphasis on entrepreneurship.

“We want to increase the number of persons who will be starting a business in the next five to 10 years,” Fontaine said. “We could see that some had thought about it, but never did, so we want them to go through the action of doing it.”

Central to the campaign is education, starting with even the youngest residents. The community has hired a firm to develop activities that foster in youth values associated with entrepreneurship.

“We felt, in the last years, entrepreneurship was not in the forefront as it was before, and so what we’re doing is promoting entrepreneurship as a career starting really early, even at the daycare, with activities that will develop entrepreneurial values like creativity and perseverance,” Fontaine said.

That same firm will also help develop activities which demonstrate entrepreneurship in action, along with videos showcasing entrepreneurs within the community.

The materials will be designed to appeal to youth all the way from kindergarten up the post-secondary level.

In November, celebrated as Entrepreneurship Month, the community brought in a guest speaker from l’Oeil du dragon (the Québec version of Dragons’ Den) to hear directly from an entrepreneurship about the rewards and challenges associated with owning a business.

“Developing the culture starts at the school level, so they’re all really enthused about this,” Fontaine said.

A second program, Éxperience client plus, is focused on assisting existing business owners in enhancing their customers’ experience.

The 18 business owners that have signed up will have access to direct customer feedback, in addition to training and coaching in a series of workshops on how to improve their offerings. FedNor is covering 90 per cent of the cost of participation for the one-year program, making it an affordable option for small businesses.

One of the sessions, What is Today’s Client, coaches business owners on the difference between client experience or and customer service.

“Anybody can provide a toothbrush, but experience is more than that,” Fontaine said.

“We want our businesses to take this turn and go into the Client experience plus.”

More youth are returning to the community, thanks to Destination Hearst, the annual networking event that connects graduates with employers. That early effort to encourage former residents to return home for employment, or to set up their own business, is slowly starting to pay off.

The dip in population, which dropped 9.6 per cent between 2006 and 2011, has slowed and the trend is starting to reverse.

“The population has stabilized and we can feel that there’s youth coming back,” Fontaine said. The program is working.”

Hearst remains a nature lover’s delight, offering plenty of opportunities for fishing, hiking, camping, skiing, snowmobiling, and more.

Coupled with that are the unique cultural activities in this small, but vibrant, community, such as the HOGs Poker Rally, the Taste of Hearst Fair, the Constance Lake First Nation powwow, and more.

Said Fontaine, “In terms of quality of life, I don’t think you can find anything better than here with all that we have to offer.”