Nfld. & Labrador·The Fix

What can Fogo teach us about revitalizing rural economies and culture?

Don't have a fancy, multimillion-dollar inn in your town? There are still things communities can learn about rural revitalization from the success on Fogo Island.

MUN business professor says underlying principles of Fogo's success can be used in other communities

Natalie Slawinski, associate professor in Memorial University's faculty of business, studied the Shorefast Foundation to better understand the successful business ventures and the success it has brought to the island. (Submitted photo )

The Fix is a series airing on CBC Radio's The Broadcast, hosted by Jane Adey, featuring ideas on how to drive Newfoundland and Labrador forward. 

Not every community in Newfoundland and Labrador can have a swanky, multimillion-dollar hotel like the Fogo Island Inn.

But, according to a professor at Memorial University's business school, there are lessons to be learned from the Fogo model that can lead to economic revitalization in other rural areas.

Natalie Slawinski, who studies business sustainability and how organizations respond to social and environmental issues, says businesses don't always think about their impacts on society. That's why she was intrigued to learn more about the Shorefast Foundation on Fogo Island.

The Fogo Island Inn is one of three businesses operated by the Shorefast Foundation, a charitable organization on Fogo Island started by the Cobb family. (Jane Adey/CBC)

"Here you had, you know, Zita Cobb, who had spent her whole career in the corporate sector saying things like business should serve society and not the other way around," said Slawinski.

Shorefast, which aims to build cultural and economic resilience on Fogo Island, runs three social businesses: Fogo Island Inn, Fogo Island Shop and Fogo Island Fish. The surpluses of these three ventures are reinvested into the communities on the island by the charitable organization.

Slawinski says the success of the model is proven.

"So Shorefast now employs more than 200 people and its businesses now account for more than 20 per cent of Fogo Island's non-governmental GDP," says Slawinski.

The MUN professor has heard criticism, even from her colleagues, that Fogo Island is a unique case and there are no lessons that are applicable more generally.

This is the view from one of the rooms at the Fogo Island Inn. The inn operates year-round and caters to guests who travel to Fogo from all over the world. (Jane Adey/CBC)

"So that's really pushed me and pushed the thinking of my research team to figure out what is it about this model that can be shared out with other communities," says Slawinski.

What she and her team have come up with are some underlying principles in the Shorefast approach. They've created an acronym — PLACE — as a set of instructions for other regions in the province. 

Traditional red and white sheds dot Joe Batt's Arm, Fogo Island. (Jane Adey/CBC)

P: Promote community champions.

Community champions are people who really care about their community and want to make a lasting impact, said Slawinski.

"You can find community champions in the most unlikely places … those change agents that every community that is struggling really needs." she said.

L: Link insiders and outsiders.

Insiders are generally people who are born and raised in a community. Outsiders could be tourists or others who have fallen in love with the community and decided to move there.

Tony Cobb is president of Fogo Island Fish, one of the three social businesses operated by the Shorefast Foundation, which he co-founded. (Jane Adey/CBC)

"Insiders have that really deep local knowledge, they have the traditions, they know the place inside and out," said Slawinski. "But it's the outsiders who come in with fresh eyes and they see things that maybe the insiders take for granted or no longer see  in their community.

"And when you bring those two groups together, that's where the knowledge-sharing happens and new expertise is built, and new inspiration develops from that."

A: Assess local capacities or assets.

Slawinski suggests communities take stock of what they have and figure out what is special about where they live.

"Getting people into a room and having conversations about what is special, you know, asking questions like, what do we have? What do we love?What do we miss?"

Winston Osmond and his wife, who own a craft store on Fogo Island, are directly benefiting from the increased tourist visitation to the island because of the Fogo Island Inn. (Jane Adey/CBC)

When communities do this evaluation, she emphasizes, it's vital that they not try to imitate what other places are doing and create direct competition.

"You have to really think about this from a province-wide perspective … We may sometimes think that all rural Newfoundland communities have very similar assets … and on the surface they do," she said.

"I mean, they all have this breathtaking scenery and similar traditions and cultures but it's digging a little bit deeper and really figuring out what is it that makes this community tick and what can we really leverage … and create something new that other communities aren't doing."

C: Convey compelling narratives.

This part of the strategy involves coming up with stories that resonate with people in the community and are grounded in truth about the place, building morale and supporting community development.

"It could be a story about overcoming challenges and how we always find a way through those challenges. Then, those positive stories need to be repeated because then people can anchor onto those," she said.

Fishers for Fogo Island Fish catch cod by the traditional method of hand-lining. The product is served at the Fogo Island Inn and sold in high-end restaurants in Toronto and Ottawa. (Jane Adey/CBC)

"It's finding those positive stories that can inspire, rather than the negative ones that deplete everybody's energy and make people feel hopeless."

E: Engage "both/and" thinking.

Slawinsky says people too often set up "either/or" choices in their minds. 

"When people engage in both/and thinking they take those two goals that might seem opposite to each other and find a way to engage with both goals."

These quilters make and sell homemade crafts at a store called Wind and Waves in Joe Batt's Arm. Visitors from all over the world pass through their shop during their stay at the Fogo Island Inn. (Jane Adey/CBC)

She points to the cuisine they serve at the Fogo Island Inn as an example. Affluent guests expect a sophisticated dining experience. What they serve is sourced locally as much as possible.

"And so it's really blending this kind of cosmopolitan contemporary ways of making food that will appeal to this global clientele … but then how do you do that in a way that honours the place? And so, bringing in local traditions and local ingredients and then blending the two and what that's created is a type of cuisine that is very unique to Fogo island."

The PLACE model is getting attention in some communities in Newfoundland and Labrador, said Slawinski.

A shot of the Fogo Island Inn from the road leading up to the entrance. (Jane Adey/CBC)

Community leaders from around the province who gathered in Fogo in November identified similar challenges to ones experienced on Fogo Island.

"These principles that we've sort of pulled out of our research are already being used in other places," she said.

In the end, communities that want to move forward have to be willing to accept change, said Slawinski, who hopes that what she has learned from the Shorefast example can provide a roadmap for injecting new energy into rural areas.

"When people feel hopeful about their place, when you're telling positive stories that give people hope, that changes attitudes and changes behaviours. Then people can start to see with new eyes." 

This story is part of a series called The Fix airing on The Broadcast on CBC Radio. Host Jane Adey interviews people with ideas, solutions and strategies to drive Newfoundland and Labrador forward. Do you know someone who has a good fix for Newfoundland and Labrador? Contact Jane Adey:

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

About the Author

Jane Adey

CBC News

Jane Adey hosts CBC Radio's The Broadcast, and has worked for many other CBC programs, including Here & Now, Land & Sea and On The Go.


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