An industry town turns to artists and an old building to help shape its future

Seven artists. Three fully equipped subsidized studios. It's being called a "no-brainer" plan to bring more crafters to Port Hawkesbury.

Port Hawkesbury's newly renovated craft incubator offers affordable studio and retail space for artists

Holly Grant, gallery manager for the Cape Breton Centre for Craft & Design, surveys the renovations for a craft incubator at Customs House. (Cape Breton Centre for Craft & Design)

Not far from the local post office, courthouse and pub, one of the Port Hawkesbury waterfront's last remaining heritage buildings is being transformed into a craft incubator space for Canadian artists in an effort to bring new creative blood to the Cape Breton industry town.

"Port Hawkesbury is no different than any other small rural community [in] that they're facing challenges of out-migration, retention, aging demographics," said Paula Davis, director of recreation for the Town of Port Hawkesbury.

"This seemed like a great way to attract some young people to our community."

The Customs House craft incubator is an initiative of the Cape Breton Centre for Craft & Design in collaboration with the town. It will offer shared studio and retail space in the former customs and post office building for seven emerging craft producers working in textile, clay or jewellery.

Lori Burke, executive director of the Cape Breton Centre for Craft & Design, believes the incubator will be the first of its kind on the island.

It's located in a town where many residents work in an adjacent industrial park in Point Tupper, home to one of the largest employers on Cape Breton, Port Hawkesbury Paper.

Lori Burke is the executive director for the Cape Breton Centre for Craft and Design. (Elizabeth Cross)

The idea borrows from an already established craft incubator called the Plantation in Quidi Vidi, a small fishing community just outside of St. John's.

Both the Quidi Vidi and Port Hawkesbury incubators offer artists affordable studio space — rent will cost $125 to $175 per month at Customs House. In Port Hawkesbury, studios also come fully kitted with tools and equipment.

Port Hawkesbury's first group of incubator artists are expected to arrive this summer.

'Repopulate' the island's artists

Burke calls the craft incubator an economic "no-brainer."

"We have a lot of craft producers on this island and a lot of them are aging. They are in their greying years and they are looking to possibly retire or close up their businesses within, you know, three to five years," said Burke.

She said she knows of at least four important retail studios in Cape Breton at risk of shutting down.

"We're really looking at supporting these artists to set up businesses, hopefully in the long-term in Port Hawkesbury and the Strait area, and really repopulate Cape Breton with more artists."

The Customs House on Granville Street in downtown Port Hawkesbury. (Neil Gascoyne)

Burke said the plan is to develop more craft incubators in other Cape Breton communities. Louisbourg and Inverness are possible future locations, she said.

Other efforts are underway to make the island's creative sector more sustainable.

The Cape Breton Centre for Craft & Design offers artist-in-residence programs. Highlands National Park's first artist-in-residence, Montreal abstract painter Amélie Jérôme, finished her residency in December and has stayed in Cape Breton to live and create her art.

The former Holy Angels Convent in Sydney is undergoing a $12-million modernization project to house a new centre for arts, culture and innovation.

And in March, Cape Breton Regional Municipality endorsed a creative economy growth plan as part of its budget. The municipality is now working on implementing that plan through its economic development partnership with the province.

Artists at the Customs House craft incubator will participate in business workshops and professional development training. (Corey Katz)

Is creativity Cape Breton's next big industry?

On Wednesday, CBC is holding a public forum in Sydney asking Cape Bretoners whether creativity is the island's next big industry.

Hosted by Mainstreet Cape Breton's Wendy Bergfeldt, the forum is from 7 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. at the Cape Breton University Art Gallery. The event is full, but don't worry — you can join in online.

The forum will be live streamed on CBC Nova Scotia's website and Facebook page, where we'll be taking questions from our online audience.