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Last month, seven architects and students from Toronto were in Port Union, Nfld., finishing a new cultural building project: a wooden arch that will be a new gathering place. They were doing the work themselves, building in the rain alongside some local residents, hammering together wharf timbers and Douglas fir beams on a site overlooking Trinity Bay.

This union-built town on the Bonavista Peninsula, a three-hour drive from St. John's, has a long history of mercantile and cultural activity. But like many of Newfoundland's coastal outports, it has faded, with fishing gone and no industry to speak of. This is why Culture of Outports, a non-profit program run by Toronto's ERA Architects, landed here. It's an unusual exercise: part community-building, part city planning, part economic development.

And the program's founder, ERA principal Philip Evans, hopes it will answer some difficult questions. "After the end of the fishery, what do you do?" asks Evans, who is descended from several generations of Newfoundland shipbuilders. "What would make someone my age, who is thirtysomething, have an interest in living in these communities?"

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The answer has something to do with the province's rich sense of place; ambitious Newfoundlanders are trying to build a new economy of hospitality and great design. The Fogo Island project off the island's northeast coast, with a hotel and artists' retreats, dramatically designed by Newfoundland expatriate Todd Saunders, has gotten worldwide attention. The comedian and actor Shaun Majumder is working on a similarly minded project for the outport town of Burlington. Hospitality, craftsmanship and history – plus architecture: Is this the recipe for a prosperous rural future?

To help focus that question, Culture of Outports has sent groups of students and architects into an outport town each of the past three summers. This summer, six Ryerson University students and ERA's Andrew Pruss hosted open houses for many of Port Union's 400 residents. This in itself is a victory, according to the local activist Edith Samson. "We asked, what would you like to see this [area] restored as? And a lot of the ideas are sustainable, really good ones."

The collective building project has created a new structure meant to refocus the community's attention. The archway is like the temporary victory arches that were once built here to celebrate important occasions, but built "in a contemporary language," Pruss says. The idea is to reorient the town – which has been pulled apart by car travel and the presence of the Trans-Canada Highway – back toward the sea and toward its historic centre. That centre includes a series of significant buildings that are now in poor repair, including industrial buildings and tightly built row houses. "We're trying to create a new gathering place for the community," Evans says. "All their resources were on the high street. We're trying to help them bring new life to these buildings."

This combination of cultural planning and symbolic architecture is potent. "It's been a long road to try and improve these buildings," Samson says. "People are wondering what's going on; they're in bad shape, and we know that. But they are properties that were started by the Fishermen's Protective Union in 1916." Port Union has a rich history: The densely built town once had its own fish processing plants, a convention hall for union meetings, a hotel, a printing plant and – in 1918 – an electrical station.

But its current challenges are similar to those of other Newfoundland outports – including the sites of the past two Culture of Outports trips: Brigus and Burlington. And the answers come down to tourism, hospitality and education, taking advantage of the richness of the landscape, local history and culture. "We're heritage architects and we're interested in old buildings and evolution of place, but that's just one filter," Evans says. "In the community, people value quilt-making or mummering – these practices that play out only in Newfoundland. And they're assets." Both Samson and Evans talk about building on the town's union history, to make it a hub for labour conferences or for "boutique-style manufacturing" that trades on the history of the place.

There are similar possibilities across the province, Evans says, with the active participation of government, other non-profits and engaged citizens. Another prominent example is the one that brought ERA to come east in the first place: Burlington, Majumder's hometown. He hired ERA to research its history in support of the new hotel he is building there, designed by New Brunswick's Acre Architects. "He asked, is there anything historically interesting here?" Evans recalls. "There's 200 years of tremendous history. And that's why people will come here."

Ultimately it comes down to capitalizing on the rich sense of place that Newfoundland has in abundance. But Evans suggests persuasively that there are lessons for other locations across the country. What, he asks, will we do with the rural communities that are losing their economic engines, or – as in the farm belt around Toronto – being subsumed by suburbs? Why not trade on their agricultural heritage, their history of producing food and being connected to the land? "What are we doing with our rural communities throughout Canada?" he asks. "There is a race to capture them before the places and buildings disappear, or in Newfoundland, while the older generation is still here to teach."

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"There are resources in the community; let's work with them to see what we can make out of this place."

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