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Hope is hard to find in Mulgrave, N.S., population 700: Jobs are scarce, the population is shrinking and the school is disappearing. <b>Jessica Leeder</b> looks at how things got so bad and what could happen next

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A pink sky glows over the Venus Cove lighthouse in Mulgrave, N.S., after a winter storm. The town of 700 residents is in dire economic straits, and has had no luck finding a larger municipality it can amalgamate with. 'We are in a real tight spot,' Mayor Ralph Hadley says.Photography by Darren Calabrese/The Globe and Mail

Ralph Hadley has a job nobody wants.

When he says this, he isn’t talking about his day job as manager of operations at the local marine terminal. No, that one is an enviable position given there are only about three commercial employers left in this skin-and-bones town.

Mr. Hadley’s side gig as mayor of Mulgrave, the lowest-paid mayoral seat in Nova Scotia, is the one no one covets. Its population whittled down to just 700, Mulgrave is battling a long list of ills, among them potholed roads, abandoned houses, empty storefronts, an aging population, an impending school closure and an overall, understandable lack of optimism. Like many small towns in heavily rural Nova Scotia, Mulgrave is failing.

Unlike the string of small towns that recently found themselves so hard up that they had to dissolve and amalgamate with surrounding municipalities, beleaguered Mulgrave has failed at that, too. Town council voted two years ago to throw in the towel, but attempts to lock down an amalgamation partner have been fruitless. Mayor Hadley said Mulgrave has been rejected by five municipal entities, none of which wants to take on the financial burdens of the town.

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Mayor Ralph Hadley looks out on Main Street from the town's temporary office. The town hall was condemned and torn down.

Mulgrave is at a loss for what to do next.

“We are in a real tight spot,” said Mr. Hadley with a dour look on his face, still wearing his reflective vest during a break from the docks on a recent day. Having first refused an interview on the grounds that he is tired of talking about the town’s grim situation, he relented grudgingly during a stop at his temporary office in a strip mall (the town hall had to be demolished a few months ago when part of its rotted structure gave out).

“Years back, this was a lovely little place to live,” said the mayor, who was born in the town, which, save for the Anglican church and historic post office building, is low on picturesque Maritime appeal.

“There’s no crime. Everybody knows everybody. There’s no hustling and bustling like all of you do in the city. It was a great place to bring up kids. But now we’re just surviving. We’ve lost our bank, our stores. If we had amalgamated, we’d have gotten some good,” he said, adding, “This is not our fault. I was hoping the government would come out with some kind of fund for dying areas like ours.”

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A fisherman is silhouetted as he inspects a wharf, built as a break wall for fishing boats, after a winter storm tore it from its moorings.

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Rocks are unloaded at the Mulgrave Marine Terminal, where Mr. Hadley, the mayor, is manager of operations. Shipping and resource industries were once the lifeblood of communities like Mulgrave, but economic changes have starved their town cores and tax bases.

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Mr. Hadley, right, leads a Mulgrave council meeting in the town's fire hall.

Small-town bailouts do not seem top of mind for leaders in this small province, which is straining to shore up an enfeebled health-care system and make widespread changes to public education, all while hustling to outpace a grim economic forecast. In 2014, a provincial report revealed that Nova Scotia had the oldest age profile of any province except Newfoundland and Labrador and had more people retiring than entering the labour force. The outflow of people 20 to 34, the report warned, was leaving a wake of wreckage: “When they leave, to a serious extent, they take the future of their communities with them.”

While much has been done in Halifax’s urban core to counter those trends, out on the Strait of Canso, it appears that Mulgrave, with a median age of 53.5 and a public school population of 17, will have to limp along. The town opted out of a provincial process that could have forced an amalgamation with the Municipality of the District of Guysborough, which contested the process over concerns about the millions needed to repair Mulgrave’s main road. “We didn’t want to force it,” Mr. Hadley said. “It’s like a marriage: If you don’t get along, why should you get married?”

Now the town’s uncertain future raises a perplexing question, not just for its own residents but for the many others who live in increasingly fragile outlying communities: What happens when a failing town runs out of options?

“We are always here to work with our municipal partners to find a path forward,” said Municipal Affairs Minister Derek Mombourquette. “What that looks like for Mulgrave, I don’t have the answer to that today.”

The most likely answer is an “organic” death, according to Kevin Matheson.

“In the absence of some provincial political leader taking the bull by the horns, it will be a very gradual thing, like it has been,” said Mr. Matheson, who has unintentionally become Nova Scotia’s top expert on the demise of small towns.

A self-employed chartered accountant, Mr. Matheson is regularly hired as a temporary administrator by the province’s struggling towns, most of which can only afford his services a few days per week.

“They’re all pretty good places to live,” he said. “But at some point, you’ve got to renew your infrastructure. Where are you going to get the money to do that?”

The answer is usually amalgamation. In recent years, Mr. Matheson has been deep in the books of at least four towns, including Mulgrave, that are dissolving or trying to stave off the process. The market for his unique expertise is showing no signs of drying up.

“There have been lots of reports and studies over the years that said something like this was apt to be coming, that small towns were going to struggle,” Mr. Matheson said, counting out loud six towns that have either teetered or gone under recently. “Things are coming to a head.”

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The Port Hawkesbury paper mill looms in the distance behind a Russian fishing vessel that brought clams to port in Mulgrave.

It’s happening quietly, though, and has largely gone unnoticed beyond the limits of these towns, which were built around rail lines, shipping ports and the resource economy when people still shopped, saw their doctor and went to school or church right in town.

The dampened resource economy, shifting jobs, shuttered stores and the ease of highway travel – both to work and big-box stores – have starved town cores and slashed their tax bases, making revenue harder to generate. Meanwhile, the increased regulation of water, waste, planning and zoning has made running a town more expensive and complex than ever, Mr. Matheson said. “You need experts now in a whole large number of fields, which is a struggle when you have a small tax base,” he said.

Add the maintenance of aging infrastructure – roads, sewage systems, water treatment plants – and you have a road map to crisis mode, Mr. Matheson said.

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An elderly woman walks across the road toward Mulgrave's port office. Potholed roads and aging infrastructure are among the community's myriad problems.

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A house on Mulgrave's Main Street is listed for sale.

Mr. Momborquette said the government is looking at increasing regional co-operation to improve “efficiencies and viability” in struggling municipalities. “We are interested in exploring … how we can achieve that without needing to jump to amalgamation,” he said.

For now, there is no clear path forward for places that are struggling.

“Many towns have come to the point where, if there is one more problem, it’s ‘That’s it, folks, we’re going to have to just pack it in,’” said Jack Novack, director of the local government program at Dalhousie University in Halifax.

“But in some ways, the towns are at a place that’s not completely of their own doing,” he said. “There has never been a full recognition of the role that towns play in the life of Nova Scotia society.”

The 2014 report by the commission tasked with mapping out the future of the provincial economy, titled “Now or Never: An Urgent Call to Action for Nova Scotians,” warned that “city-dwellers” lacked both awareness of and empathy toward the rural economy.

Yet almost half the province lives in rural areas. Nova Scotia has more residents in small towns than Manitoba or Saskatchewan. “And they are simply seen as no longer economically viable,” Mr. Novack said.

Their failures often take place far beyond the gaze of urban Halifax, the province’s only major city, and without much evidence that anyone is taking note – let alone contemplating – what the dissolutions mean.

Mr. Novack argues the losses will affect Nova Scotia’s culture and weaken its democracy.

“Local government is really a place where people learn to be good citizens,” he said, adding that municipal issues – development or waste collection, for instance – are easy for people to grasp.

“The process of listening, considering, reflecting … is really the process of democratic engagement.”

There is also the fact that some people simply prefer small-town life.

“Not everybody wants to live in cities,” said Kathy Hearn, a lifelong Mulgrave resident who says there is a lot to keep her busy in town, from bingo to dances in the community room attached to the local fire hall. But family gatherings are now rare, as both her grown children moved away for work.

“They’d like to be living back here,” she said. “But you have to have the services.”

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Residents of Mulgrave and nearby communities gather for a Saturday-night dance at the town fire hall. The event was a benefit for the Luke MacDonald Memorial Bursary, honouring an accident that took the lives of two teenagers in 2010.

Less, rather than more, is on the horizon. The liquor store in Mulgrave is slated for closure, and the school, which has just two teachers, will shut for good in June. Children will be bused across the Canso Causeway to Port Hawkesbury for classes. Mulgrave’s town council will be left with the building, which it can neither afford to maintain (an old wing needs asbestos remediation) or lose (community fitness classes and other events are held each night in the gym).

“You lose your identity when you lose your school,” Mr. Hadley lamented. “Now how do you attract anybody to move here?”

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Residents take part in a town-run exercise class after hours at the Mulgrave Memorial Education Centre's gymnasium.

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An abandoned house sits near the school, which is due to close this June.

Tom Urbaniak, a Cape Breton University political scientist who studies community-level economic development, has one answer. “I call it affirmative self-government,” he said, which roughly translates to pulling oneself up by the bootstraps.

“These communities have to come to see themselves as a social enterprise to defy the negative trends,” Prof. Urbaniak said. “It starts with inventorying your assets, both human and otherwise, and a calm conversation about whether we can make any of these seeds grow any more. … The question is: What makes us unique in the world? What makes us distinctive?”

Mr. Hadley does not have an inspired answer for this. You won’t hear the trendy buzzwords tossed around by Haligonians – entrepreneurialism, collision space, tech hub, innovation – up in Mulgrave.

“We’re going to keep plugging, one day at a time,” the mayor said with a sigh.

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