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Bonavista entrepreneur says local economy can thrive despite downturn


While the provincial economic climate is suffering thanks to the after effects of a drop in oil prices, John Norman, COO of Bonavista Living and Creative, says his business is not being affected the way so many others are.

John Norman, COO of Bonavista Living and Creative.

Bonavista Living and Creative purchases and restores buildings in the Bonavista area and makes them available as vacation rentals, spaces for businesses and private residential sales.

Norman says things are still going well under the “living” side of their umbrella, which sees the acquisition of buildings in the town.

“House restoration is ongoing,” said Norman. “We do seem to have quite a bit of interest in the residential properties that are nearly completed. Everything that is completed is either sold, leased or rented. There’s nothing vacant.”

Bonavista Living and Creative owns 41 properties, including 27 residential as well as some commercial buildings and plots of land.

Norman says the recent downturn in the economy, including oil sector layoffs in other provinces like Alberta, has had hardly any effect on his business.

“Maybe I’ll regret saying this, but we can’t keep up with demand in our properties,” said Norman.

He says he thinks they’ve been doing so well because of the market they’ve focused on.

“It is a special market. It is a special type of person. Generally, who we are looking to acquire our houses are members of the creative class. And, generally, the creative class has money tucked away.”

He says a lot of the members of the “creative class” are moving into the region from places like St. John’s or from outside the province entirely. He says they are often liquidating assets and the money from that would go farther in Bonavista — buying a house or renting business space.

“They see the benefits of living well and living more cheaply.”

Norman says a lot of people are interested in moving to Bonavista.

He says he’s had people calling him and flying in, looking to do a tour of the town with him, every weekend for eight straight weeks recently.

 “For this area, it comes at a great time because Newfoundland is in a downturn and, I think, will remain in a downturn for a year or two — and I don’t think this area is an exception.

“Oil, of course, is going to affect us because, like any Newfoundland town, there are people who work in the oil industry here and some have already been affected.”

However, he figures this region might buck the trend a little because a low Canadian dollar, against the American dollar, can be beneficial for export businesses, like the fishery, which is the second largest employer in the Bonavista area.

The town’s third largest employer is tourism. Norman says the low Canadian dollar will also help that industry.

The Bonavista Living group owns the bed and breakfast, Jubilee House and new Jubilee Barn Loft, and he says they have seen bookings that are “through the roof.

“Bonavista has been on a steady, upward trend. It has not stagnated like some other communities that are seen as tourist destinations.”

He says he thinks visitors, both tourists and potential citizens, are attracted to Bonavista’s “authenticity.”

Norman says by this summer, just through Bonavista Living and Creative, there will be 21 new year-round residents in Bonavista. With an average age of 33 years old, at least half of those families have children, he says.

“This is a living, breathing, working town that operates year-round. There’s nothing artificial or created about it. The fish plant works, people go about their daily business, day and night, 12 months of the year.”

However, one area of their business in which Norman initially thought they certainly would see a slowdown is Bonavista Creative Workshop.

The workshop is a group of heritage carpenters who craft custom millwork for their own buildings and for private contracts as well.

He didn’t expect as many people to be in the market for building supplies such as heritage style windows, but he was surprised to see they are doing well heading into the summer.

Despite the reported slowdowns in construction around the province, Norman says the workshop has a full calendar. He thinks the heritage work may be different than many other forms of building, which have suffered.

In addition to their residential works, Bonavista Living and Creative is also providing space for five new businesses, all new start ups, to open in downtown Bonavista on Church Street this May. Three of them will operate year-round.

There are a total of seven commercial spaces available through 2016 and two more to be renovated for 2017. He says there are eight to 10 interested parties for the remaining two spaces alone.

He says the new businesses represent new tax dollars, one to three jobs created per business and more services for local residents.

The businesses include a soap manufacturer, an organic food diner, a chocolate and ice cream shop and a bookstore.

Norman says they’re cautious when it comes to making sure if businesses coming into the area will be sustainable in the current economic climate, but the new enterprises represent the diversification which can help the local economy.

“We cautiously look at the businesses and discuss how they feel it could work. Does it rely solely on tourism? That can be a challenge, some of them may work, some of them may not.

“Does it rely on a combination of tourist dollars and local dollars? Is it year round or is it seasonal? And, most importantly, a number of businesses that we’re working with that’ll be opening this year are looking at 20 per cent tourist dollars, 20 per cent local dollars and 60 per cent export.”

Norman says making products from scratch locally and sending them around the world sees businesses able to stay open year-round and be sustainable in communities like Bonavista.

He calls the combination of tourist, local and export business a good mix for success.

“When we did our original analysis of Bonavista Creative and what it would be, it would be all built around, first and foremost, enhancing the liveability of the town and, of course, enhancing real estate and the fact that we would have a lot of houses to sell.

“People want to live in a place where they have, in many cases, more than the basic services … the educational services are here, the health services are here, but we wanted to fill in the extras.”

jonathan.parsons@thepacket.ca

Twitter: @jejparsons

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