Fogo Island Inn founder Zita Cobb is coming to save your town too

Can something actually be done to shore up the economic resilience of other communities across Canada that are facing sudden and harsh economic disruption?

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This is a conversation series by Donna Kennedy-Glans, a writer and former Alberta cabinet minister, featuring newsmakers and intriguing personalities. 

A decade ago, when the Fogo Island Inn was just opening its doors to a curious public, I was captivated by the storytelling of the inn’s founder, Zita Cobb, and her audacious vision to re-invent a remote Newfoundland island as an exotic tourist destination after the abrupt collapse of the cod fishery.

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Over the Thanksgiving weekend, I travelled to Fogo Island to meet Zita a second time and to see for myself whether her stories of economic and cultural revival rang true. Could something actually be done to shore up the economic resilience of other communities across Canada facing sudden and harsh economic disruption: the shutdown of coal mines and lumber mills, the transition from hydrocarbons to clean energy, the demise of any longstanding industry?

I was only 20 when tobacco growers in southwestern Ontario, the place where I grew up, were nearly overnight denied credit by banks and a once flourishing industry imploded. Of course, there were reasons — the links between cancer and smoking are irrefutable — but it still surprises me how acutely I can recall the decades-old pain felt across that community.

Sequestered at a long, locally crafted wooden table in the inn’s well-appointed library, a colourful photo book on lichens resting between us, Zita and I get reacquainted. The inn is full this Thanksgiving weekend, with guests from Europe, the U.S. and Canada, and it takes some effort to find a quiet space.

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My husband and I drove up from St. John’s, through Gander, to catch the ferry to Fogo Island. Others, including three separate groups from New York, flew in on private jets. It’s easy to see how well a $40-million investment in a 29-room resort for the ultra-elite is panning out; Zita and other philanthropists contributed 80 per cent of the upfront costs and the other 20 per cent, funded by the federal and Newfoundland governments, has long since been repaid. The inn, and a host of related social enterprise initiatives launched by Zita on this island, are owned by a non-profit, called Shorefast, for the benefit of Fogo Islanders.

The diminutive 65-year-old woman sitting across from me, practically dressed for the changeable autumn weather in thick-ribbed corduroy, her hair cropped short, pixie-style and not a trace of makeup — someone who grew up in a very poor fishing family on this island and went on to amass a fortune in the fibre optics business — doesn’t strike me as someone who would luxuriate in the inn’s success. And I’m right: during COVID, Shorefast embarked on a pilot project, beyond the shores of Fogo Island, to figure out how other communities across the country could likewise build up local economies rooted in the particulars of a place. Focus communities included Fogo Island, Hamilton, London, Ontario’s Prince Edward County and Victoria. Shorefast partnered with Canadian Urban Institute, the Community Foundations of Canada and the Coady Institute on the pilot.

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Zita Cobb.
Zita Cobb, who transformed a stark Newfoundland outpost wants to share the lessons of Fogo Island with Canada’s other “stranded assets.” Photo by The Fargo Island Inn

All Newfoundlanders have a stirring accent but there’s something about the rhythm of Zita’s voice that’s mesmerizing. I don’t want to be rude, but as we’re chatting, I find myself wishing I could close my eyes and just listen to the sound of her voice. She has a way of floating an idea — fleshing it out, then pulling it back in — that echoes the motion of an ocean wave.

Zita gets visibly agitated when I observe the pilot study includes a mix of rural and urban communities. “When someone says urban-rural divide, I say, please, stop saying things that are myths. It’s not helpful. People live in communities. In a big city like Toronto, those communities are neighbourhoods.”

Every place has a specific history, she continues, and the questions to be asked are: What do we have; what do we know; what do we miss; what do we love; what can we do about it?

And then she does a deep dive into what many communities are missing, with the first missing piece being access to financial capital. “Canada has 40,000 communities that are incorporated, that doesn’t count the ones that aren’t incorporated … Only 500 have access to banking.”

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“What does that make our country?” Zita asks, pointedly. “It makes our country a bunch of stranded assets.”

Fogo Island just lost its local bank last year. “And we say, from on high, what is wrong with you people?” she exclaims, her voice ripe with sarcasm. “We have 62 businesses on this island, two or three are in transition at any one time and often young people would like to take them on but they can’t get a loan.”

The second challenge for smaller communities is access to data. “We have very little access to community data about anything and certainly not economic data,” Zita explains. “At the provincial level, you can get trailing data. We don’t even know what our assets are; half the time we don’t know how many people are here.” Meanwhile there are lots of corporations with data: They know where you use your credit card, and have lots of data that’s not made accessible to local leaders, Zita laments.

The third challenge? It’s mindsets. “It’s hard to shift mindsets,” she says, “especially when people have been on their back foot and feel like they’ve lost so much and a little bit of anger gets in there.”

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And finally, the biggest threat? It’s the missing architecture for collaboration. “I feel like I’ve been swimming in the same mud for 15 years,” Zita says, slowly. “I say swimming in mud because, why is this so hard? Why is everything disconnected? Why does the time of when the plane lands not line up with the ferry? Because, you start to realize, no one gets up in the morning, anywhere, in any pillar or any sector and says, what does it take to get community economies to work?”

So, whose job is that? That’s a good question. It’s nobody’s. Nobody’s been tasked with it.

Sure, bigger places like Hamilton or London have economic development officers who work for the cities and everyone thinks, that’s their job. But how can anyone do economic development from inside a city pillar, by themselves? You can’t, Zita declares. “That’s why most often, it becomes, what company can we convince to come here? How can we get Amazon to build a warehouse here?” But this isn’t actually “development,” Zita complains; “It might be investment, but it’s not development and half the friggin’ time we’re paying them to come.”

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Most municipalities are financially starved, Zita concludes, forced to make decisions not in their best interest. “We’ve got cruise ships coming into St. John’s; it brings revenues to the city,” she reports. “But look at that net impact of all that. We’re set up for bad decisions.”

What’s to be gleaned from Zita’s experience on Fogo Island? Some of her biggest fans tell me what she’s done can’t be replicated elsewhere.

“I would never think of replication!” Zita exclaims. But what she’s learned can be shared, and it’s this: “If you leave communities on their own, especially small ones, they will get into a kind of stasis or paralysis because they hold old grudges. What the Fogo process taught me, as a 10-year-old, is if someone’s coming over for supper, it was like, OK, please, put on your best clothes and act like you’re getting along.”

Communities are at their best when they are really on their last legs, Zita reflects. “That’s what happened in 1968 on Fogo Island and I lived through that. We almost got resettled. It’s a huge part of our history and how we avoid it is a huge part of my own thinking.”

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Mucking along together — breaking up the knots we get tied up in — builds up a community’s resilience. But it’s not for the faint of heart, Zita assures me; there’s always going to be lots of friction.

Donna Kennedy-Glans is active in the energy business and a multi-generational family farm. Her latest book is Teaching the Dinosaur to Dance: Moving Beyond Business as Usual (2022).

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Originally posted 2023-10-29 13:00:21.