W5: Finding a sustainable future for outport Newfoundland
Published Saturday, February 18, 2012 6:59PM EST
Newfoundland and Labrador being a small province, I'd heard of Zita Cobb, and knew she was doing some extraordinary things in her birthplace of Fogo Island. I didn't realise just how extraordinary until I arrived there with W5.
Fogo Island sits off the northeast coast of Newfoundland, accessible only by a one-hour ferry ride from the wharf at Farewell. Hanging along its craggy coastline are some of the oldest settlements in Canada, today home to some 2,700 people. It's not the easiest place to live, even by Newfoundland standards, and the closure of the ground fishery made life difficult. But, it is a stunningly beautiful, powerful place. And the people themselves are, as Zita says, "strong of will, but soft of heart."
And Zita Cobb is certainly of her people. She was raised in the Island community of Joe Batt's Arm, in a house with neither electricity nor running water. At 16, armed with a scholarship to Carlton University, she set out for Ottawa. It was an opportune time: Ottawa's high-tech industry was burgeoning and, after years of hard work and tenacity, she made a sizeable fortune. In 2001, at the age of 43, she took what she calls "the off-ramp to that 100-mile-an-hour lifestyle." She cashed out, seeking adventure, and sailed around the world.
Zita's heart, though, was never far from her old home, and she was bound and determined to help its residents. Initially, she set up a scholarship fund for local students to attend university. But one local woman protested. She said to Zita, "I thought you were smarter than this." Why?
"Because you're sending our children away instead of building a future for them here at home."
Dumbfounded, Zita changed course, moved back to Fogo Island, founded the Shorefast Foundation with her brother Tony, and committed herself to sparking an economic renaissance in the area.
Her passions run deep, and broad – not just for Fogo Island, but also for the importance of rural communities throughout Canada, and their importance as the anchors of our culture and our heritage. The arts, she fervently believes, is pivotal to not only preserving and protecting culture, but allowing culture to evolve and, importantly for islanders, provide for future prosperity.
How that's taking shape is what's truly stunning. Shorefast wants to put the island on the world map of design, so it commissioned Newfoundland-born, Norway-based contemporary architect Todd Saunders to build a series of artists' studios. Today, seven of them are dotted throughout the island. The stark, contrasting images of these ultra-modern structures fastened along Fogo Island's ancient, dynamic shoreline have been featured in The New York Times, The Guardian, and World Architecture News.
The plan is to attract well-known international artists, with the subsequent visibility drawing high-end tourists. Tourism, done sensitively, would create jobs built on, and sustaining, Fogo's cultural riches.
But they'll need a place to stay, so the Fogo Island Inn is under construction -- a 5-star, $400-a-night, modernist luxury hotel also designed by Saunders. When it opens in the fall, the Inn will feature 29 oceanfront rooms, a theatre and a Finnish-designed rooftop spa. Even half-built, it is a daunting, dramatic structure, and a startling change from the local landscape. It isn't without controversy, but most people we talked to were giving Zita, one of their own, the benefit of the doubt.
The question is: will the tourists come? That's the big risk. Add to this Shorefast's investments in sustainable cod fishing and new local businesses like Nicole's Café (where I had the best fish of my life), and there's a lot on the line.
At sunset one evening, just before Zita rowed me around the Joe Batt's Arm harbour in her family punt, I asked her about the millions of her dollars that's at stake here. Was she worried?
Her smile was iron-clad. "Failure", she said, "is not an option."