Perspectives on keeping rural communities vibrant in the winter

They say it takes a village to raise a child. But when the village collapses, what does it take to raise it again?
Many PEI villages are relics of a once thriving rural community. As agriculture and other major industries became industrialized, the lifeblood of these places was gradually siphoned out. According to the 2016 census, the population of farms on the Island has decreased by roughly 90 percent since the 1950s.

With this shift came the loss of many small businesses. Mom and pop shops were replaced by chains. Cheap TV dinners and fast food baited households with convenience. Country living was hijacked by a commute to an urban centre to make a living.

As small farms began to decline, tourism began to flourish. It’s only logical that remaining rural businesses would turn to tourism to survive. Today, the seasonality of many rural businesses on the Island is undeniably pronounced. Perhaps the most stark example is Cavendish, where in July it is literally booming with sounds of a beach festival and in January even the traffic lights are shut down.

But does targeting tourists to cash in on the summer season in our rural communities come at the cost of not attracting people who live there year-round?

In the late 1980s the slow food movement began in Italy in response to a McDonalds trying to open near the Spanish Steps in Rome. This movement was a reaction to the negative impacts of fast, cheap food. Since then, growing trends in farmers’ markets, community supported agriculture, food-to-table restaurants, microbreweries and other small businesses give hope to a revived rural way-of-life.

While there is hope, a new industry now threatens our sense of community. Sure TV dinners might be a thing of the past but are smartphone dinners our future? This over-connectivity to technology is coming at the cost of genuinely connecting and it doesn’t bode well for building community, rural or urban.

It’s as if we’ve forgotten the simple joy of sitting around a table talking to each other. It was doing this very thing at The Mill in New Glasgow that I met with some community members to discuss how rural businesses could function year round and cater to local clientele.

James Mitchell and Nicole Kaminski of The Lookout Inn in New Glasgow feel that investing in rural community requires a leap of faith to give, with no expectation of getting a return. A revival of common courtesy comes in the form of encouraging their clientele to visit other local establishments, or offering to shovel snow or mow grass for neighbours with no strings attached. They also cater to locals by offering longer stays and affordable off-season rates and a home-cooked breakfast delivered right to their room.

Emily Wells, owner and chef at The Mill in New Glasgow, says it takes a full understanding of what the concept and consequence of buying local means. She prioritizes sourcing local producers because she knows this investment is precisely how community is maintained. She would love to see The Mill re-established as the thriving community hub it once was: a place where locals gather and tourists are the icing on the cake. It’s for this reason that she has kept her doors open on the weekends this winter.

From our discussion it became evident that the problem is chicken and egg. We, the rural consumers, must support rural establishments more to make it worth their while to stay open in the off-season. Yet, rural business owners must cater more to a local crowd rather than put all their effort to attracting tourists.

In Emerald, PEI, the Boxcar Pub and Grill opens Friday evenings during the winter. Manager Kent Croken said, “We’ve been very fortunate to have terrific support throughout the winter from the surrounding communities with many Fridays being at capacity [60] for at least part of the evening, plus we also do a number of take-outs…We find that most people still enjoy getting out of the house to socialize with their friends and neighbours–even if it is minus 20 outside and we are happy to provide the space to do that.”

A famous town planner, Randolph Hester, would ask locals to circle on a map the places in their town that mattered to them. What arose was a common sense of ownership among the community for “sacred places,” like the local pub. I’m reminded of my own neighbourhood growing up. As a child I was certain it was my street, my playground, my corner store.

Perhaps to raise our villages, it takes this kind of childlike approach.

About Tara Callaghan

Decisions are not Tara’s friend. For this reason her passion cannot be reduced to one subject. She has always needed to write, keeping a journal since she was in the single digits. Her career began studying ecology and creative writing. From there she went on to study Landscape Architecture, working professionally for the last 10 years. More recently she launched Little Victory Microfarms; a small farm in Charlottetown and New Glasgow, PEI. With her mother, they grow a wide variety of fresh herbs and vegetables for market and wholesale.
While continuing to feed her passions for designing landscapes and growing food, Tara also feeds her passion to write though an eclectic blog and articles for Salty.

View All Posts