Nova Scotia

Rural Reckoning: Come From Away hopes to help Guysborough

On a little spit of land stretching into Guysborough Harbour, on Nova Scotia's Eastern Shore, lies one of the fairways of the Osprey Shores Golf Resort.

Toronto businessman sees bright future in historic community, but a coolness to outsiders lingers

On a little spit of land stretching into Guysborough Harbour on Nova Scotia's Eastern Shore lies one of the fairways of the Osprey Shores Golf Resort. 

The man who owns this resort — and a growing number of other businesses in the village — says it's a special piece of coastline. 

"Normally, without the fog, the village of Guysborough would be right there," says Glynn Williams, pointing through the mist and across the bay. "This is my favourite spot." 

Williams, in his late 50s, is the owner of a group of Toronto-based aerospace companies — a former financier with expertise in mergers, acquisitions and takeovers. He's also the founder of a philanthropic foundation that supports youth charities.

Here in Guysborough, though, he's known as the man who began buying up half the village a decade ago.

"I came through Guysborough some 26 to 27 years ago and I fell in love with Nova Scotia," says Williams. "I lived in Toronto at the time in a very stressful job working on Bay Street and thinking, 'Geez, wouldn't it be great to unwind.'" 

Soon after, Williams bought a rustic home in a nearby community that had a hand-pump and an outhouse. "It was perfect," he recalls. He brought his kids during the summers and grew more and more captivated by the area.

Then, about ten years ago, a couple of rundown and abandoned historic properties in the village became available on the market, and Williams bought them. 

Dwindling population, but signs of a turn-around

With more than 500 kilometres of coastline and pretty inlets, Guysborough is the landscape of Stan Rogers and bold seafarers, a place that was once a bustling trading and fishing community. Its grand buildings, such as the imposing brick and stone post office, reflect its former prosperity.

Williams sees this — and much more — in the village where he now lives part-time. 

"A community of only 400 or 500 people, and yet there's an RCMP detachment, a bank, post office, a school, a theatre, a craft brewery, a craft distillery, a golf course. It's amazing the infrastructure that exists for such a small place," Williams says. "As long as the community has jobs, then hopefully that infrastructure will remain in place." 

But jobs are still very much the worry, as in so much of rural Nova Scotia. Since 1976, Guysborough County has lost two-thirds of its population — the largest outmigration in the province.

It also has the highest percentage of people over age 65, and the lowest percentage of young people. The future seems grim. But, something is happening here.

Collectively, the businesses that Williams owns right in the village are branded as Authentic Seacoast. 

Authentic Seacoast's Rare Bird Pub and Eatery (foreground) and the bright yellow Skipping Stone Cafe operate out of renovated heritage buildings on Guysborough's Main Street, just up from the waterfront. (CBC)

One of them is the Skipping Stone Cafe on Main Street. It was once a neglected heritage building. Now, it's fully renovated.

A barista behind the counter says she began working at the cafe at the end of May. And she's a prized commodity: someone who grew up outside the area — Halifax, specifically — and decided to move here. It's an example of how the area is looking bring young people back after losing so many to outmigration. 

"We educate our young adults. The next thing, they end up either working in Halifax and Dartmouth, or they're going even further, which is Fort McMurray," says Vernon Pitts, warden of the Municipality of the District of Guysborough.

"We're very concerned about it, but we're doing all we can to reverse that now." 

Pitts says several large, planned projects for the area — a wind farm, an LNG plant, a quarry, and a container terminal — means the economic outlook is promising. And Pitts praises Glynn Williams's investment in the area. Still, local reaction hasn't always been warm. 

Glynn Williams, owner of Atlantic Seacoast, poses below the canoes and kayaks suspended from the ceiling of the Skipping Stone Cafe. (CBC)

"In the early days, there was indifference, hostility and a lack of community support for some of the things I was doing," Williams says.

"In smaller communities — whether in Nova Scotia or anywhere else — there are these clans and there is a power structure and I think in hindsight I was a little disruptive to it, not intentionally. And people are conservative, so they see the type of investment that's going on, and they think, 'What's this all about, must be a tax thing.' Which, of course, it's not."

A $20-million investment so far, and not making a penny yet

Williams's first business purchase in the village was the DesBarres Manor Inn, which he quickly renovated. He also owns a soap-making operation, a coffee roaster, a craft brewery, and the Rare Bird Pub, which is just next door to Skipping Stone Cafe.

Here, Williams shows off his latest project: Fortress Rum. It's rum brought in from the Carribbean and then aged in barrels at the Fortress of Louisbourg in Cape Breton, where Williams has struck a partnership with Parks Canada. Then, the oak barrels are brought back to Guysborough where the rum is blended with other ingredients and then bottled for sale.

Fortress Rum is currently sold in liquor stores in Nova Scotia and has already won some coveted hardware: a medal at the World Spirits Competition in San Francisco last year.

Mitch McNutt from Parks Canada presses the historic fleur de lys stamp onto a freshly wax-dipped bottle. (CBC)

Williams is now in the process of building the largest distillery in the province in order to ramp up production of the rum in the village. The project also includes building one of the largest craft breweries in Nova Scotia. He hopes to at least double his workforce in the community from the current 23 or 24 full-time jobs.

And while Williams has invested $20 million in the area, he says he's not making a penny yet in Guysborough. 

"We're doing this for lots of reasons, one of which is to create meaningful, sustainable, year-round jobs in this community of approximately 400 or 500 people where every job matters," he says.

"There are way easier ways to make money at less risk. This is more of a social investment than it is a financial investment. It's to see if we can reverse the tide of people leaving and we can continue to build and contribute to the community." 

Others share his hopes.

"With Glynn, he's made a very strategic investment, a very incremental investment," says Gordon MacDonald, director of economic development for the District of Guysborough.

"We don't see cranes in the air in Guysborough here often. But now, this summer, you look at the work that he's doing with the distillery."   

MacDonald says Williams's investment in the area is spurring on other growth, such as the municipality taking the lead in developing a new sub-division.

CFA label can be discouraging, but locals are coming around

Sharon Lombardo and Mike Hogan say they're another example of the positive spin-off from Williams's investment. They recently bought the Days Gone By Bakery Restaurant and Gift Shop in Guysborough. They resided in Ottawa for years and now live in Halifax, but they plan on retiring in Guysborough. They currently employ between 15 to 20 people, depending on the time of year. 

Days Gone By Bakery, Restaurant, Antiques and Gifts on Guysborough's Main Street is under new management. New owners Sharon Lombardo and Mike Hogan are supporting other local businesses by buying local produce and goods. (CBC)

For Lombardo, being in the village is a case of coming home. Her mother was from here, but like so many, had to leave.

"My mother's generation, at one point, all had to leave to get employment," she says. "My niece, actually, was going to have to leave town. Her husband works here, but she has three children and she couldn't get employment, so she was going to have to leave. So that helped our decision to put her as operations manager. Now, they get to stay in their community with their three kids. So it's wonderful."

Lombardo says Glynn Williams is an important part of the community's recent success. Still she knows, from her own experience, that attitudes toward so-called "come from aways" can be discouraging. 

"We moved from Ottawa four years ago, and we've experienced some of that attitude here in Halifax with my husband with setting up his business. I think that's just typical Maritimes. They want to protect their jobs and their livelihoods and when someone is coming in and wanting to change things, it might take them a little while. But they do come around. And I think that's happening now." 

Gordon MacDonald admits the welcome hasn't always been warm for Williams. 

"One of the realities in rural areas over the years is there's a certain level of cynicism because they've seen a lot of these interests come and go and not materialize. But what Glynn's done is demonstrate his commitment to not just buying a couple local accommodations, but then take the extra steps to create those attractions that will fill those facilities. It's something we haven't seen here before. The support is growing every day, and he himself is much more engaged in the community." 

Big city bustle vs small-town pace

That engagement may be part of the issue. No one will say say in an recorded interview, but some residents say the high-powered Toronto businessman, accustomed to getting things done his way, maybe didn't quite understand the pace or culture of the village and didn't initially blend well with long-time residents.

Still, such an attitude towards outsiders bringing new ideas and new investments was roundly criticized in last year's Now or Never Report from the One Nova Scotia Commission looking at how to rebuild the province's failing economy, particularly in rural areas. 

Lombardo straddles that divide, with long-time family roots, but still many years living away. She says Guysborough's future, it's very survival, depends on cooperation. Her bakery carries many Authentic Seacoast products, as wells goods from local farmers and craftspeople. 

"We initiated this relationship. We just think, 'Why wouldn't we?' It just makes sense to support other businesses in town."