Nova Scotia

Fogo Island economic success 'absolutely transferable,' Zita Cobb says

Canadian communities facing economic challenges can learn from success in Fogo Island, Newfoundland, businesswoman Zita Cobb said Friday.

Innovation 'emerges out of need,' says the businesswoman who transformed island communities

The Fogo Island Inn appeared in a Vogue magazine online feature, listing the publication's top five destinations for a winter vacation. (Zach Goudie/CBC)

Canadian communities facing economic challenges can learn from success in Fogo Island, Newfoundland, businesswoman Zita Cobb said Friday.

Three years ago, Cobb opened the now-famous Fogo Island Inn, a striking series of buildings on the rustic island that lure guests from around the world. It immerses visitors in the deep traditions of the region, yet has brought to life the community. 

Fogo Island lobster traps. (Ronald O'Toole)

Cobb's next project, based in Montreal, will be a toolkit to show what she did on Fogo Island, so other communities can learn from it.

Her "salty Narnia" of a childhood was like living in the 19th century, she told CBC Radio's Mainstreet. Her family had no running water or electricity and her parents couldn't read or write. But, she says, it was idyllic.

Innovation 'emerges out of need'

The island changed drastically with the collapse of the fishery, the main employer. Neighbours worked together — and quickly — in order to survive, she said, and that was despite being divided along religious lines. 

"Our fear of losing home altogether was bigger than our fear of each other," Cobb said.

"Innovation is something that emerges out of need — as opposed to invention, which I think emerges out of a dream of success," she said.

Cobb spoke in Halifax Wednesday about innovation as part of a series put on by the Canadian magazine, the Walrus.

Zita Cobb received an honorary doctorate of laws from Memorial University. (CBC)

Cobb left her island community, Joe Batt's Arm, in 1975 to study business. Her career started at the swell of the technology boom, which gave her enough to retire and launch, with her brother, the Shorefast Foundation on Fogo a decade ago. 

The new development on Fogo Island came down to a number of questions, Cobb said.

"What do we know as a community?" Cobb asked. "What do we have? What do we love? What do we miss and what can we do about it?"

The idea of an inn came naturally, as Fogo is blessed with profound hospitality, Cobb said. Soon through community effort, a number of businesses launched as a result of the inn being built.

"Inns need chairs and bed and tables and quilts," Cobb said. "We're good at making all that."

Fogo Island success 'absolutely transferrable'

The upscale inn with unique architecture caught the gaze of the design world. It's been featured by Vogue Magazine and the New York Times.

Fogo Island Inn in August, 2015. (CBC)

The team didn't want to make a museum, Cobb said. Instead the project carried the past and also reached to the future to build the economy.

Enrolment increased at Fogo Island schools with former residents returning home. Optimism came back to the eastern island. 

"Newfoundlanders almost always want to go home," Cobb said. "They just have to be given the smallest, little opportunity."

Other communities facing a shift away from traditional livelihoods could look to the Fogo Island model, she said.

"Any community, anywhere, and the process we used is absolutely transferrable," Cobb said. "The answers will be different because you have to start with A-B-C-D: asset based community development."

It works best, she said, with about 10 percent of the population behind the initiative.

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