Zita Cobb’s Fogo Island Inn. — TC Media file photo
Second of a two-part series
The emergence of a revival on Fogo Island is wonderful to observe.
My wife, Jane, and I have experienced it for five years with the return of Zita Cobb and her brother, Alan, to their birthplace. They had moved away with their parents to the Ottawa area, but with their return have initiated an economic revival for this island, the largest offshore island in Newfoundland which, in the 1960s, foiled all attempts at resettlement when economic difficulties became a real threat to its inhabitants’ livelihoods.
From Aug. 12-14, Jane and I returned to Fogo Island to observe the remarkable events that commenced since Zita and Alan Cobb returned.
In the 1950s, Fogo Island’s 11 small outport communities all existed independently, with a total population of approximately 5,600 inhabitants, but failures in the fishery on the East Coast of Canada and in Newfoundland made a decent living difficult for the people of this island, so the provincial government proposed a resettlement program. It was vigorously opposed by the inhabitants, as history reveals. Their fierce independence stood them in good stead; the population is now about 2,400 and improving because of the initiatives and enterprise and investments of the Cobb family. There has also been assistance from the provincial government — approximately $9 million — and from the federal government through the Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency — approximately $7 million.
The Cobb enterprises include hands-on art workshops and contemporary art studios, as well as the world-class Fogo Island Inn.
There is much to do on Fogo Island, including hiking along the coast and through barrens and bogs. You can see whales, magnificent icebergs, caribou and other wildlife.
The 420-million-year-old rocks there comprise a landscape that has shaped the life of its inhabitants. Rocks are what make the place and determine the struggles of island living. The Ice Age retreated 10,000 years ago and ice scraped the land to the bedrock, creating Fogo Island’s interior landscape of innumerable ponds scattered among rocky barrens.
Looking out from the Fogo Island Inn, you can see the magical offshore islets of Little Fogo Islands. The fishing stages still cling to the rocks and bird life abounds.
An explorer culture and a knowledge of botany inherited from the Beothuks means present-day residents still use plants for medicine and food. There are over 10 delicious wild berries on the island, including partridgeberries and blueberries, and when you are out on a berry patch you can watch caribou and other animals, such as beavers, at work.
In October, Fogo Island hosts the Partridgeberry Harvest Festival, which is well worth attending.
It is well recognized that Zita Cobb is an outstanding person, named after an Italian saint, Saint Zita, whose name in Greek is translated as “seeker.”
She has certainly sought a brighter future for Fogo Island. The Cobbs’ Shorefast Foundation helps direct community goals and reach international markets with a high-end tourist destination, the Fogo Island Inn, as a focal point and economic engine, together with the fisheries co-op.
Fogo Island is growing again because of the Cobbs’ activities. It is likely the single brightest spot on the landscape of this province, and they are just getting started.
Support, particularly with respect to the ferry service, is not adequate to handle the increased tourism and the needs of the three fish plants on Fogo Island, where fishery species are caught and exported around the world.
As well, there needs to be substantial improvements made to the dirt airstrip on the island. It was originally built for emergencies but now is even more necessary because the island attracts artists and tourists from all over the world, including the United States, Australia, the U.K. and Mexico. The strip could be extended in both directions to the 5,000-foot length needed to handle up to small jet aircraft. A request for action from the provincial government has apparently fallen on deaf ears.
Zita Cobb had a brilliant career in the high-tech industry, where she attained the rank of chief financial officer of the JDS Uniphase Corp., a fibre-optics company. In 2006, she left, cashing out her shares, and moved back to Fogo Island. She and her brother plotted the strategy for success on Fogo Island that is now evident. It’s based on three initiatives: an ultra-green, high-end inn, an international arts foundation and a micro-loan fund to support local people who might wish to set up businesses. To date, the fund has supported boat-building, and a boat-building factory, greenhouses, a taxi company, a daycare operation and a gourmet restaurant.
It is Zita’s and her brother’s wish to help diversify the economy and to nurture the future of Fogo Island while preserving its past.
The inn itself is 40,000 square feet of impressive modern design suited to the Fogo Island environment and built in the most imaginative way.
Another site worth seeing on Fogo Island is an excellent bronze statue of a great auk. It was created by a bird historian as a show of support for bird species — he has one in Iceland and one near Joe Batt’s Arm facing out to the Funk Islands where the last known great auk vanished into history.
Fogo Island is now on the international map as one of the world’s premier, high-end tourist destinations, as a venue for contemporary arts and as an internationally recognized centre of architecture and design innovation.
The renaissance of this rural community has been successful by adding to a sustainable economy in ways that complement its 400-year-old history; by incorporating and celebrating local values, traditions and cultures; by respecting the environment; and by integrating the arts with a high-value, high-end tourism initiative that is sized and scaled so as to not overwhelm or distort the community, but instead to become a normal part of the lives of the people of Fogo Island.
This is an amazing success story, unprecedented, as far as I know, in our history. That’s why it’s important to support these initiatives where support is needed, such as the ferry service and the airstrip. What is happening on Fogo Island is unique in our history, and I would think unique, as well, in the history of underdeveloped areas anywhere in Canada.
John Crosbie welcomes your feedback by email at email@example.com.