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Growth Entrepreneurs breathe new life into small towns across Canada

Started by Tim Beauchesne and his son Steve on Canada Day in 2006 – both of whom left other jobs to pursue this entrepreneurial dream – Beau's brewery is community- and family-focused.

December 13 marked the tenth anniversary of Ben Cowan-Dewar's first visit to Inverness, Nova Scotia, as a fresh-faced 25-year-old. It's the site that would become Cabot Links – the golf course recently named one of the top 100 in the world by Golf Digest.

But Mr. Cowan-Dewar, the entrepreneur, has brought something else to the town of 2,500: a source of economic prosperity not seen since the mid-1950s, when Inverness had a successful mining operation.

His story is similar to others across Canada. Across the country, entrepreneurs are re-energizing small towns that didn't have much to lean on.

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"I was 25 years old and naïve and thought I could build a golf course," explains Mr. Cowan-Dewar, now 35. "Now we have hundreds of employees and are a fairly significant economic driver for the community and the region."

One of those employees is the head golf professional at Cabot Links, Ryan Hawley. Mr. Hawley, 30, is from Ingonish, N.S., and says before Cabot came along, Inverness was on the "forgotten" side of the island.

"The golf course is the attraction, but once they get here, they see Cape Breton has it all," he says. "It's bringing so much to Inverness and the surrounding areas and Cape Breton Island itself. The opportunities it's bringing -- the opportunities to bring people back home to work – it's just something we never had before."

People are saying 'hello' again to what was once just a goodbye town. And that's all thanks to Cabot.

Previously, most of the people on the west side of Cape Breton Island would move further west to Alberta for work, according to Mr. Hawley. He says he had no plan to return to Cape Breton himself until he retired, but now there's a reason to.

More good news is coming to Inverness in the form of a second Cowan-Dewar course, Cabot Cliffs. It's opening in the summer of 2015, and industry pundits are already claiming it will become one of the top 10 in the world. Expansion is also coming to the resort with more rooms and a few ocean-view villas. Mr. Cowan-Dewar says the residents of Inverness have given him an "overwhelmingly positive" reaction.

"It was a lot of change for a small community that hadn't had a lot of change since the mining operation closed," he explains. "I think having the light shone on this beautiful corner of the world, a lot of people have taken pride in that."

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Around the same time Mr. Cowan-Dewar was touring Inverness in the early 2000s, the community in Warner, Atla., population 331, was struggling. The local high school was close to shutting down and something had to be done. The community thought of starting a women's hockey school and the idea took off from there.

"You hear that the heart of the community is the school and Warner is no exception," says Mark Lowe, the original director of the school, the first of its kind in Canada. "If Warner was to lose the high school, it would reduce the attractiveness for people to move into the community and it would effect the population."

The program was meant to invigorate the community, and Mr. Lowe, who is now the principal at a high school in a neighbouring town, says "by keeping the high school viable, it really kept the community viable."

Despite the educational connection, Mr. Lowe says Warner always knew it was starting a business. And now, the hockey school is roughly a $1-million-per-year organization.

"This wasn't just a project," reflects Mr. Lowe. "We knew that this was going to be a business."

Having a hockey school had been an idea kicked around Warner for 20 years, but what really accelerated the plan was the modernization of a grain elevator in the town into a hockey rink. It was a program that would "invigorate" the community and also save the high school.

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There was not a large number of top-tier schools dedicated to developing female hockey talent at the time, so the town of Warner thought it could offer something different. Town volunteers put in 25,000 hours of help, and raised $400,000 of seed money at the outset, and, the last decade in Warner has been one of "renewed vibrancy," according to Mr. Lowe. The population has increased 19 per cent in the five years since the school's opening in 2003.

That same kind of vibrancy can be felt 50 minutes outside of Ottawa in Vankleek Hill, Ont. thanks to Beau's All Natural Brewing Company.

Beau's has been a successful craft brewery in its eight years of existence, winning numerous awards including the 'Best Brewery in Ontario' in 2010.

Started by Tim Beauchesne and his son Steve on Canada Day in 2006 – both of whom left other jobs to pursue this entrepreneurial dream – Beau's brewery is community- and family-focused.

"We thought it would be a great thing to do what we wanted to do in the town we grew up in," Steve explains. "But if you went along Main Street, there were quite a number of places that were vacant and it was very quiet. If you went [out] at 5 p.m. you'd be lucky to find a person on the street."

Beau's injected some cultural newness into the town of 1,833 people. For example, it hosts an annual Oktoberfest event, and this year it brought 19,000 visitors to Vankleek Hill, while raising nearly $100,000 for local charities.

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"We've got 125 employees. That's a lot of people in town that didn't used to be there," Mr. Beauchesne says. "On any given week, we'll have 500-600 tourists come through Vankleek Hill on the way to the brewery. We're offering something for people coming in to town, and the town has been rallying around the brewery as well."

Just like Warner and Inverness, a keen sense of entrepreneurialism has brought renewed life to a small town, and has helped put Vankleek Hill on the map.

"Considering how small it is, no matter where I travel, people seem to know where Vankleek Hill is," laughs Mr. Beauchesne. "Instead of saying, 'oh I have a friend or an aunt or uncle from there' they say, 'oh, that's where the brewery is.'"

And being in a town known for one thing isn't all that bad. In fact, Mr. Cowan-Dewar says it's helping to inspire other businesses, too.

"The transformation we've seen on Main St. ... I hope it continues," he explains. "It's really rewarding to see businesses begin, have good starts and hopefully thrive in the future.

"If we do a good job of it, we'll create an atmosphere where more opportunities like that will exist."

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