Breathing new life into old town

For the love of a tiny community from which he doesn’t hail, Toronto entrepreneur Glynn Williams is pouring his heart and money into Guysborough, Nova Scotia. The result is a mini-boom that continues to bloom with new commercial opportunities along this achingly beautiful stretch of the Eastern Shore.

When the late, summer sun shines sweetly on the winding roads of Guysborough town, and a steady breeze brings news of grumbling rollers breaking on the far shore of Chedabucto Bay, the peripatetic Glynn Williams can be a hard man to find. This, he might say, is his high season, that heartbreakingly brief time of the year, after the last black fly and before the first frost, when this village of 400 at the eastern tip of mainland Nova Scotia is at its best and the hotelier-cum-stauranteurcum-brewmaster-cum-distiller welcomes visitors from all over the world.

“Oh yeah,” he says enthusiastically. “We get people from Italy, Philadelphia, the U.K. They come from Halifax, Moncton, everywhere in Canada.”

He grins as he recounts the reaction of shoppers, not long ago, at the farmer’s market in Antigonish, home of St. Francis Xavier University, barely 40 minutes by car up the highway. “It was amazing,” he laughs. “There I was and I’d say 50 to 60 per cent of the people didn’t even know where Guysborough was! Can you believe it? Fortunately, that’s begun to change. Our hospitality businesses really anchor the community.”

In fact, they’re doing more than that. Up and down Guysborough’s main street, evidence of a civic renaissance is everywhere. Banners fly as locals mix with tourists at pretty cafes and shops, festooned with homemade goods and specialty fare. There, along the boulevard, the Rare Bird Pub & Eatery jostles the Skipping Stone Cafe and Store. Not far away, the Full Steam Coffee Co. shakes hands with the Harbour Belle Bakery. Elsewhere, the Osprey Shores Golf Resort caters to those of a clubbier mindset and the DesBarres Manor Inn provides a year-round destination for romantic foodies of every inclination. Soon, an artisanal distillery will open to augment a craft beer operation that’s making a name for itself across Nova Scotia.

He won’t say it, but it’s fair to observe that none of this would have happened without Williams and his near-fanatic love for a part of the world from which he doesn’t actually hail. “I’m from Toronto,” says the 56-year-old former professional engineer, securities analyst and current equity investor from his roost in the rustic headquarters of Authentic Seacoast Co., the cradle for his expanding operations. “But this place has such incredible history. Think about it. There was the landing of Prince Henry Sinclair (believed to be) in 1398 … The coastline from Guysborough to Canso was settled by the Acadians between 1604 and 1659. Then we have the Scots and the Irish and a well-established black community.”

Still, he might agree, a rich and vibrant history is no guarantee of a small town’s durability. One of the more urgent conversations in Atlantic Canada concerns the plight of its rural areas, most of which can boast notable provenances. Faced with aging and dwindling populations, inadequate access to educational opportunities, crumbling transportation and cpmmunications infrastructure, and winnowing industrial bases, many are on the brink of extinction. Indeed, more than once in both distant and recent memory, Guysborough, itself, has flirted with disaster.

Once, lumbering and shipbuilding dominated the local land and seascapes. Not anymore and for all the reasons familiar to coastal communities across the region (changing technology, a shrinking pool of skilled labour, shifting government policies and priorities). Commercial fishing, a traditionally crucial engine of employment, came to a screeching halt during the 1980s and ‘90s in the wake of the federally imposed cod moratorium. Since then, stabs at longterm economic development have enjoyed only mixed success, though don’t utter such a blasphemy anywhere in Guysborough County, lest you prepare yourself for a long debate.

“Our economy has diversified in recent years, although the resource sectors remain vital,” declares a rosy report on the municipal district’s web site. “Today, there are job opportunities in a range of public and private sector operations and services, and some very bright opportunities on the near horizon. The Strait of Canso port is already growing faster in annual tonnage shipped than any other east coast port. The Maher Melford Terminal is under development on the mainland side of the strait on a green field site surrounded by room to boom. There is, literally, gold in the hills . . . Commercially viable deposits are proven, highly promising results are coming in elsewhere and full scale mine development is a virtual certainty.”

Still, the deeper truth is, as prominent Maritime writer Harry Bruce once noted, “Wave after wave after wave of Maritimers have left their beloved homeland, rolling westward again and again to seek jobs up and down the Atlantic seaboard, in the American midwest and far west, in Quebec, Ontario, the Prairies, British Columbia, and the northern territories . . . aritimers, more than other Canadians, have had to keep their eyes on the horizons, and Leaving Home has long outlasted the golden age of sail as part of their heritage.”

It is now, perhaps, for a stranger to this place, a come-from-away, to humbly suggest an alternative to history’s sad ritual.

Born in Montreal and raised and educated in Hog Town, Williams is a lifelong denizen of the urban jungle, which is why, each year, he leaves his Toronto home, like a migratory bird, to summer in this seabound paradise. “The people here don’t put on airs,” he says. “This is the real McCoy. Every community here has its own accent and vernacular. Some words you’ve never heard before. Like ‘tickle’. That’s a small body of water. It’s so charming.”

Such charms grabbed him early, when he was about 30, when after a trip to Nova Scotia, he noticed a three-line classified ad in a Saturday edition of the Globe and Mail for an old house on 100 acres of land overlooking Chedabucto Bay in St. Francis Harbour (a community not far from Guysborough). He bought it and spent the next 25 years happily vacationing there with his wife and two kids for at least a few weeks every warm season. It grew on him and though he charted his increasingly successful career in Ontario’s hot shops of engineering, financial services and, finally, private investment, he knew his heart was in the east.

Increasingly, he knew something else: Even the smallest of towns possesses unique assets that can be leveraged to feather its future with commercial opportunities. “I came across the DesBarres Inn in about 2005,” he explains. “It had been abandoned for about a year, and I thought that was just nuts. It was built in 1837 and it had all this history. So I purchased it and fixed it up with the idea of making it a real destination. Today it’s a five-star accommodation and we have a great chef.”

At around the same time, Williams noticed two other properties on the town’s main street that had seen better days. “Again, these were abandoned,” he says. “Again, I picked them up and fixed them up. Both The Rare Bird and the Skipping Stone have undergone major renovations since then.”

In quick succession followed the rebuilt and renamed Osprey Golf Resort, the Harbour Belle Bakery, Full Steam Coffee, a craft brewing business and, this past summer, Authentic Seacoast Distilling Co. Ltd. Altogether, these companies employ about 30 people, but that number is set to double once the liquor-making operation, which is yet to be built, moves into full production in a couple of years.

Williams estimates he’s poured $10 million into these ventures. But, he reckons, it’s money well spent. Although he prefers to characterize the efficacious effects of his efforts on the town as the results of serendipity and good timing – not, he insists, as the outcome of any deliberate or elaborate economic strategy – there is a long-term method to his happy madness. “When you look at the demographic, you can be overwhelmed,” he says. “People are moving to the cities. There’s a lack of jobs, a lack of work here. The hospitality industry is somewhat cyclical and seasonal. That’s why, a couple of years ago, we ensured that the Manor Inn was open year round. But, last year, the light went on in my head and I realized that what we have to do now is make things that people outside of Guysborough want to buy.”

That is, in fact, the thinking that now drives the coffee roasting, baking, beer and distilling businesses. Or, as he recently told the Halifax Chronicle-Herald, “Our challenge is to create year-round, sustainable employment for the community, and this is where the new take-away side of our business comes into play . . . It only makes sense to export some of what we have to other communities.”

What citizens of Guysborough – some of whom can follow their family trees back to the 1700s – think about the mini-boom in their midst can be a little hard to discern. Few speak openly, or on the record, about their feelings. Still, one resident, recently caught while beach-combing, had only good things to say about the new hustle on parade: “Well, it’s something, isn’t it? We haven’t really seen anything like it.”

Of course, it’s entirely possible, as Williams rushes from one outpost to another in his expanding empire, Guysborough ain’t seen nothing, yet.

1 Comment to “Breathing new life into old town”

  1. Hello Alec,
    Just a brief note to tell you that the NB Medical Education Trust is now an independent foundation which has awared over 1 million dollars to medical student over the past 6 years.
    I look forward to telling you our story.
    Martha

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