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From bankrupt to boomtown, this Newfoundland community is building a future by preserving its past, one house at a time

by Alec Bruce

In eastern Newfoundland, on a coastal plain where no trees really grow, beams of fir and spruce—mortised together with tenons so artfully hewn they barely budge in the constant North Atlantic wind—dominate the landscape. These aren’t the traditional “tilts” that outport pioneers threw together with rough chops of driftwood and parchments of pine to survive just one more winter. These are houses, some dating back to the mid-1700s, with gabled ells, double front-peak dormers, scalloped shingling, ornamental finials and foundations made of stone. These are the houses of Bonavista. Durable. Deliberate.

Mayor John Norman, who was born and raised here, likes that about these structures. And while some men his age (35) might give up a kidney to be anywhere but Bonavista, where the permanent population hovers around 4,000, he stays to tend the homes he calls “built heritage” because they are beautiful and because—in a precarious corner of the world, where the fishery comes and goes on the tides of time—they say, “We survived.” They also say, “We thrived.” He likes that about them, too.

John Norman, 35, is the mayor of his home town of Bonavista, NL.

Throughout the past decade, Norman has helped turn the town’s inventory of more than 1,000 historic properties into a platform for community economic development that’s virtually unknown anywhere else in Newfoundland. Through various non-profit and commercial real estate and cultural ventures, he and others in the municipality have managed to leverage millions of dollars in federal and provincial heritage funding to revitalize many of them and, in the process, attract new residents, businesses, and tourists to the area.      

Where once, not long ago, the fishing village of Bonavista teetered on the brink of financial ruin—a victim of the federal government’s 1992 cod moratorium, which beached 30,000 Newfoundlanders like so many discarded fins and tails—over the past five years, house prices have risen by 57 per cent. Over the past two, 50 new enterprises have launched. Now, the once-decimated municipal budget regularly shows a month-over-month, double-digit growth rate. With any luck, very soon the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) will officially recognize the nearby Discovery Aspiring Geopark, a prospect that promises unparalleled cultural and (of course) commercial opportunities in the future.

And all of it, Norman says, began with the houses. “Growing up, I was certainly aware of them. They were a constant presence in the community, but I don’t think too many people gave them a whole lot of thought, or what they might be able to do with them. As Bonavista chugged along, they just sort of stood there, year in and year out.”

In fact, Norman says, “They were—and are—very impressive pieces of architecture. Historically, homes in towns on the Island were built by local tradespeople or by the fishermen, themselves. Bonavista, though, was one of the very few places in Newfoundland that had master builders right in the community.”

In his 2004 book, The Legacy of Alexander Strathie: The Architecture of the Strathie Family of Bonavista, Dale Jarvis, an officer for the Heritage Foundation of Newfoundland and Labrador, elaborates: “At some point between 1811 and 1814, (Scottish merchant planter William Alexander) contracted fellow Scotsman Alexander Strathie to construct a home suitable for a businessman of his standing in the community… Now known as Bridge House…the building is the oldest surviving residential structure in the province for which a date of construction can be assigned. Accented by a natural stone foundation, the…home features gable end chimneys, a central hallway, and a highly symmetrical design…Thought to be the first of many homes in the town to be built by Strathie, the Bridge House defined the character of the community.”

It certainly did, Norman thought even as a youngster. In 2002, when he was in high school, the wreckage of the cod closure was transparently real on the streets of Bonavista. First had come the great vanishing, as people pulled up stakes and departed for points south and west; then shuddered the great shuttering, as businesses, one after the other, closed for good. Seemingly overnight, the town’s population of 5,000 dropped by nearly a third, and the folks who lingered gambolled like zombies up and down the main drag, past the old Garrick Theatre. Still, the houses appeared just as they had (pristine, weather-beaten, or somewhere in between) in better days. What exactly, he wondered, did that say?

He didn’t know it at the time, but others were asking similar questions in rural locales all over Canada. In the early 2000s, the heritage-as-economic-stimulus boom was just starting to build momentum thanks, in part, to flush capital markets and overflowing government coffers.

While Canada’s Gross Domestic Product was doubling to $1.4 trillion (between 2001-2005) the federal government all but replaced the unofficial motto of its arm’s-length Crown trust, The Heritage Canada Foundation (“it is heritage that gives value to economics, not economics that gives value to heritage”), with its own prosaic word picture (“we are committed to the development of initiatives that would support the restoration and preservation of Canada’s built heritage”).

Suddenly, formerly inconsequential files, such as community economic development, became front-line priorities for conduits of public investment in the largely rural and locally impoverished regions of the country, particularly the East Coast. As long as you weren’t a Newfoundland fisherman, and were serious about cultural entrepreneurship, the Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency was your best friend.

In these circumstances, Norman’s bonafides were as good as his timing. While studying at Memorial University in St. John’s, 300 kilometres away, he won a seat on Bonavista’s municipal council. After graduating with a degree in education, he returned home and bought a fixer-upper—it wasn’t grand or elegant, but, being more than a century old, it was pointedly historic.

Norman obtained a real estate licence and eventually started Bonavista Living—a company with the sole purpose of transforming the town’s heritage houses into living, working properties—and Bonavista Creative, a commercial incubator to promote, in its own words, “crafts people, artisans, food vendors and many other professional services not currently operating in the area.”

At the same time, he worked hand-in-glove with municipal colleagues and others to shore up the town’s approaches to big-ticket fundraising—among them, the non-profit Bonavista Historic Townscape Foundation which formed as an extension of the local historical society in the mid-2000s. Its decorously worded writeup on the official Bonavista website merely states, “In partnership with the Town of Bonavista and other community groups (we) launched a major Townscape development project to help revitalize a portion of Church Street (in the downtown) and to stimulate new business activity there. This initiative combined with an incentives program for property owners to restore heritage structures has made a tremendous visual impact on the town, enhancing the pedestrian experience.”

In fact, its contribution to the whole Bonavista project has been far more significant than that. As Norman explains, “Over the years, the Townscape Foundation has been successful in funnelling tens of millions of dollars—mostly federal funds, but also provincial. I’m quite confident in saying we have received more federal dollars, through ACOA, for heritage and culture than most, if not all, Atlantic Canadian communities of the same per capita size.”

Meanwhile, he adds, “While it has been doing that, the town council has been doing its core work and focussing more on government lobbying for recreation facilities, infrastructure, and so on. So, there really have been two arms at work. There’s been this not-for-profit body that works at arm’s length from council with an annual operating grant received from the town, and the town council itself. So, really, we’ve divvied up the work. We’ve had two bodies writing funding proposals for different sectors at the same time. This has been very effective.”

The Sweetland building as it was a few years ago
The Newfoundland Salt Company, in the Arthur Sweetland building

There’s little doubt about that. In August, the Heritage Foundation of Newfoundland and Labrador recognized four, fully restored Bonavista properties, bringing the total number of registered, historic buildings—for happy, productive, contemporary use—to 28, second only in the province to St. John’s, a community with more than 25 times the population.

The Frederick and Samson Mifflin Houses now host the Mifflin Tearoom. The Adam Mouland Property is home to CapeRace Adventures. The Frederick Harris House serves the Saltbox Specialty Market. The Memorial United Church lives and breathes the traditions it preserves for the people it welcomes today; its Facebook page says it’s “always open”.

And, of course, this is the point. It’s Norman’s point. Preserving heritage in the name of history is good; but deploying it to catalyze a bright future is better: much better.

Ask anyone in Bonavista these days. Ask Roger Dewling, who owns and operates, with his partner Karen Dewling, East Coast Glow—a bespoke soapery located in the restored Leonard Fifield property (originally, a dry goods store in the 1940s). “We opened in June 2016,” he says, “and it was all ‘hands on deck.’”

The Dewlings, who hail from nearby Clarenville, knew a fair bit about Bonavista. They knew the effect of the cod moratorium. They knew well enough to seek their fortunes elsewhere. But they didn’t know Norman’s Bonavista. There was something about the way he used words like “opportunity” and “creativity” when he first talked to them about the place in 2016, when they still lived and worked good, solid jobs in Halifax. He seemed genuinely stoked about the new, the young or, at least, the young-at-heart.

“I had the feeling there was some real buzz about Bonavista,” says Dewling, who is about Norman’s age. “John was talking about a number of different types of businesses that planned to open up. I know it sounds strange, but we always wanted to make soap. So, we thought, ‘Why not?’”

The Adam Mouland house
Restored from its vacant status and now home to CapeRace Adventures.

In fact, when they arrived the first thing that struck them wasn’t so much the graceful, aging inventory of heritage buildings, or even the restoration projects that seemed variously completed everywhere. It was, to use Roger’s perfectly good word, the “vibe.” Ineffable. Surprising. Exciting.

“There was this momentum,” he says. “There were five of us that year, five new businesses, and we all helped each other out. Everybody had the sense that we were in it together.”

Morgaine Parnham, proprietor of one of those enterprises, Treeline Fine Art & Craft, agrees. Now, four years after making the move from St. John’s, she never wants to leave. “I love the way we all work together and plan things and bounce business ideas off one another,” she says. “Let’s just say going back to St. John’s is not one of my joys.”

As for results, Dewling says: “We’re really impressed with the local support, but we didn’t realize how much tourism was going to come. People are also arriving from St. John’s, which isn’t unusual, but they seem to be staying longer and longer.” Parnham says: “My sales are up every year, and I’m at the point where I’m trying to diversify.”

Tellingly, perhaps, both Dewling and Parnham use identical words to make the same observation: “Every year, there seems to be a new business opening.”

Of course, no one can know how long any of this heritage-kissed community economic development will last in Bonavista. Its continuity—for the time being, at any rate—depends at least as much on fat government grants than it does on any particular business case for private equity investment.

But that doesn’t bother the 400 or more mostly millennial, entrepreneurial, family-raising newcomers who’ve settled in amongst Bonavista’s 3,600 or fewer, mostly baby-boomed, salaried, empty-nesting old-timers over the past decade. Good times. Bad times. They come. They go. What matters is what remains.

“Me?” John Norman laughs. “I wanted to move back, to stay. I planned all of this from the get-go.” He shifts slightly. “I’m always planning.”

Durable. Deliberate. Typical, even, for a man who—having spent his entire adult life on a barren, coastal plain—still manages to see the forest where there are no trees.

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