As a commission of experts tries to figure out how to revive rural Nova Scotia, a multimillionaire from Toronto has plowed $8-million of his own money into a down-on-its-luck coastal town.
Glynn Williams is a one-man development commission for Guysborough, a community of about 400 across Chedabucto Bay from Cape Breton: He has restored part of Main Street, where half of the buildings are for sale or empty, by transforming a 1929 general store into a pub. He converted a 1917 dry goods store into a café and shop. He runs a 10-room, 4 1/2 star inn built in 1837 as a home, and now the former convenience store, which had languished on the market for nine months, is a coffee roastery and bakery. And that’s just the beginning.
No wonder locals – in jest, but with an undercurrent of hostility – have accused him of trying to buy up the town. While civic leaders look at zoning, land-use planning and megaprojects in an attempt to halt the slide, Mr. Williams is putting his money in small businesses.
“This is a totally gorgeous place,” says Mr. Williams, an engineer by training who, after 20 years on Bay Street, runs his own private equity firm. He is a self-described serial entrepreneur with a high tolerance for risk – which is good, given the gamble he’s taking reinventing this out-of-the-way town.
Subscribing to the Field of Dreams theory (“ if you build it, they will come”) isn’t working so far: He hasn’t made any money. But he’s in for the long haul and is seeing some modest victories. Along with his real-estate developments, his Full Steam fair trade coffee is now sold in Sobey’s stores across the Maritimes and in Halifax’s Pete’s Frootique, a high-end grocer. He is in partnership with the province to build a whisky and rum distillery. His microbrewery produces about 60,000 litres a year of Rare Bird Craft Beer, which he hopes to get into liquor stores soon. He owns the town’s nine-hole golf course.
He’s created about 40 jobs and hopes for 30 more in five years. And the grand vision: To take his suite of small businesses under his Authentic Seacoast Company brand and build in other struggling coastal towns as well.
To succeed, the 57-year-old who flies his own plane from Toronto will have to learn from his mistakes.
“He’s got that ‘come from away’ aspect,” says Lloyd Hines, the Warden of Guysborough County. “Let’s face it, he’s a Toronto Bay Street man. … Custom, culture and what’s perceived as country civility is very important in communities, and so Glynn has had some different managers in place representing him here. There were some clashes in the community as there are inevitably when you are trying to do anything, and so that has left a bit of a taste.”
However, Mr. Hines adds, “at the end of the day, the reality is we’re fortunate in my opinion to have somebody like this guy who is willing to invest in the community. It is very important that he understands and respects the community and I believe that he does.”
Raised in Montreal and Toronto, Mr. Williams and his wife fell in love with the picturesque seascapes on a bicycle trip about 25 years ago. When he saw an ad in The Globe and Mail for a five-bedroom farmhouse on 100 acres of oceanfront, he jumped at it.
His family has spent summers on the property since then and was anonymous until 2005 when he started to buy businesses, beginning with the old inn. A German couple had partially restored it, before giving up; Mr. Williams saw potential, not only in the inn, but in the community as a whole.
Guysborough, the county seat, was a vibrant port when the ocean was the world’s highway. But as fish stocks declined along with the forestry industry, so did the town – in fact, it’s been hit even harder than most.
“We are at the bottom end of all the metrics in terms of lowest income, lowest education, highest unemployment. … Guysborough County, though it is an absolute paradise, is the victim of rural decline over an extended period of time,” Mr. Hines says.
The young people haven’t stayed – and only 20 students graduated from its high school in June.
And a wave of passive investors about 15 years ago, many from Germany, eventually left, unable to make a go of their businesses.
This year, the province formed a commission led by Ray Ivany, president of Acadia University, dedicated to reviving rural Nova Scotia. In Guysborough, Mr. Hines and his council have been trying to attract a mix of businesses through zoning and land-use planning, and have pinned their hopes on some mega-projects on the horizon, including a proposed $350-million container terminal and two multibillion-dollar liquefied natural gas plants.
Mr. Williams, however, sees the road to renewal through small business.
“In rural Nova Scotia, or any place that is challenged by geography, you have to think about making stuff that can transcend our geography,” he says. “When a big industry goes, there goes the town. I think small business, if it’s a diversified ecosystem of small and creative business that provides stability … [is] the route to self-sustaining it and reversing the demographic changes.”
He’s conscious of the snickers – at a recent comedy event, there was a reference to Mr. Williams trying to buy the town. But he hopes that others will see the potential, and start rebuilding too.