Millennials, a sense of place, and the economy

Bonavista mayor speaks to Mount Pearl - Paradise Chamber

By Mark Squibb | Vol 7 No. 13 (July 4, 2019)

The mayor of Bonavista, international speaker, COO of Bonavista Living and Bonavista Creative, John Norman, was in St. John’s Thursday, June 27.

And not for the opening of the new Costco, either.

Norman spoke to the Mount Pearl/Paradise Chamber of Commerce of the economic development of rural Bonavista over the past several years.

Norman grew up in Bonavista during the dark days of the cod moratorium.

He was in second grade when former Minister John Crosbie oversaw the moratorium.

“I still remember listening to John Crosbie with my father,” Norman recalled.

“The kitchen was silent. And the town became pretty silent in the weeks and months following that event.”

John Norman, Mayor of Bonavista, took some time to speak to the Mount Pearl/Paradise Chamber of Commerce about the economic development in his community, which has seen something of a revival in recent years after suffering economically following the cod moratorium of 1992.

John Norman, Mayor of Bonavista, took some time to speak to the Mount Pearl/Paradise Chamber of Commerce about the economic development in his community, which has seen something of a revival in recent years after suffering economically following the cod moratorium of 1992.

“The moratorium hit the community quite hard.”

Fast forward to the to 1998, when The Bonavista Historic Townscape Foundation Inc.,a not-for-profit funded by an annual operation grant by council, is established to identify, preserve, and develop the community’s heritage, including the re-opening of the majestic Garrick Theatre in the early 2000s, which had been closed in 2000 following waning economics.

“The crowning jewel for Bonavista was the reinvigoration and reopening of Newfoundland’s oldest operating theatre, the Garrick Theatre, with an over $6million investment and an annual operating grant as a social enterprise from the town of Bonavista, to the Townscape Foundation annually,” explained Norman.

The partnership between the town and the foundation still exists to this day, and the community in total spends about 22 to 24 of its operating budget on culture, the arts and heritage.

Norman told the crowd of about 50 gathered that those investments pay off.

In 2018, they saw 31 businesses open. So far in 2019, they’ve seen 18 companies begin operation.

Norman himself moved back nine years ago and bought a heritage home for $21,000, which he spent two years renovating.

It was the first steps in what were to become Bonavista Living, a combo realtor/ heritage operation which sees dilapidated heritage properties restored, revitalized, and resold.

The company currently holds about 45 properties, a number constantly in flux as more properties are purchased, and subsequently sold off.

Bonavista Creative, a non-profit arm of Bonavista Living, town council, and the local Chamber of Commerce, all helmed by Norman, help aid the young entrepreneurs who wish to call Bonavista home, by offering business supports and business counselling, a common work space, a business incubator, all launched by the Chamber of Commerce, that cost little to nothing annually.

He explained that key to Bonavista’s success is a secure sense of place identity.

A place Identify that can be marketed- especially to millennials.

“That is the fastest growing segment moving into Bonavista right now. The twenty-odd to 40-year-olds. They are the entrepreneurs, and I will tell you, they’re moving from this neck of the woods,” said Norman, a millennial himself.

“They’re moving from the St. John’s, Mount Pearl, Paradise area, as well as Clarenville, Gander, and so on, and also a significant number from outside the province.

“The environment they were in in those municipalities didn’t work for them. They felt the brand wasn’t going to work, partnering their brand with the municipal brand, they felt that there wasn’t the support they needed in some cases to launch their businesses, and the spaces simply weren’t affordable,” noted Norman.

“A space that was quite small, hole-in-the wall, for example in downtown St. Johns, maybe $4,000 or $5,000 a month. We will give you a building for $600 or $800.

“Bonavista has positioned itself to market itself as a place, a real place where you can connect, and join a community spirit, a business spirit, an entrepreneurial ecosystem, with no cost.

Norman noted that the brand-name retails, while they mean employment and business, often leave creative types with a sour taste in their mouths, and that council would do well to consider the balance of blooming bohemians and booming businesses.

“Placelessness is an enemy to the creative class. That’s not to say that town’s cant have a Wal-Mart or a Kent or what have you, because we all know that these businesses- as I can tell by the ridiculous traffic going in the direction of Costco today-it’s economics, I understand it, but there is a place for it, and then there are other places that must be maintained within the community, in order to have the community centre that the average citizen, especially the creative class citizen, wants to see”

“They’re going to potentially lose brewers, and chefs, and chocolatiers, and architects, and software developers, and painters, and writers, and musicians, because they will shop there, in all likelihood, but they might not want to live next to there.”

Norman was also quick to point out that there is no one-size-fits-all magic plan, and that what worked in Bonavista may not fit all.

“You can’t take this model and cookie cutter it across the province and have rural success.”

And it’s success that’s not come by without hard work, and a little creative thinking.

‘We haven’t discovered oil in the harbour and their ain’t gold in the hills beyond the town, so in order to create a boom, there has to be quite a bit of work done in various ways.”

But, boom Bonavista has.

“Communities evolve, communities change, and they have to, or generally they die, unless they’re in a very comfortable situation with a never ending supply of some resource.”

“In Bonavista we have gone from a near dead main Street and downtown core to over 31 businesses last year, 18 this year, and in three years, maxing out at over 50 new business opening up in the community, with an over 90 percent success rate year over year.”

Posted on July 18, 2019 .