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Small Towns can Dream Big and Deliver

With a population of less than 3,500 teetering on the edge of the Atlantic Ocean, the town of Bonavista, Newfoundland and Labrador, might not seem a likely economic powerhouse. And yet, its Millennial mayor has steered this community into an era of prosperity that is based on a little luck, a lot of hard work, a huge love for history, and belief in a vision. John Norman took on the role of mayor in 2017, but he’s been planning the revitalization of his hometown since he was a teenager. He’s coming to our area soon to share his story, and it’s one that I believe could spur incredible opportunity in New Brunswick.

Norman drew millions of dollars in historical restoration investment to his community before even becoming mayor. But the true value was in his parallel efforts to spur small businesses in the town he loves. It’s not an entirely novel concept, nor one that could necessarily have worked even a decade or two ago when Norman began dreaming. Urbanists have long explored the idea of whether creating a creative space in which people want to live will draw in others, either as residents or visitors. Our global network allows remote working relationships that now support living in a place that matters to you, rather than one that’s close to urban commercial headquarters. The time is perfect for smaller communities to grow by focusing more on building for their year-round residents, rather than constantly courting one-time visitors.

It was timely to read about Bonavista’s success after earlier this week reading Mayor Dawn Arnold’s update on the Moncton and SouthEast Region Tourism Master Plan. According to her summary, the group wants to work collaboratively with other tourism operators in neighbouring regions, supports a hotel levy managed by an independent marketing agency (a common practice in many areas, including Saint John, Halifax, Charlottetown, and more), and sees a need for improvement of infrastructure such as roads and signage. More to this column’s topic, the group talked about our current brand awareness being low throughout the Maritimes, as well as the need to ensure front-line staff in tourism-related businesses are trained to be ambassadors for our region.

I agree that investing in our people’s personal connections to our local attractions could improve the experience of visitors and residents alike. During my high school and university days, I worked for a regional and then a provincial tourism program. Each spent time and money to ensure its employees, even the summer students like me only hired for eight to ten weeks, had visited as many local hotels, motels, bed and breakfasts, museums, and natural attractions possible. Armed with that first-hand knowledge, we were much better prepared to promote these various establishments and to know which were best suited to various needs. This is knowledge on which I continue to draw and share to this day.

“We all need to become ambassadors for our beautiful region,” writes the mayor in her summary. I couldn’t agree more. But I’d push her and the other people sitting around that tourism planning table to also consider John Norman’s approach to building economy and interest in Bonavista. When we create spaces in which people want to live, other people want to visit. When passionate community champions extol the virtues of year-round living, rather than just a short vacation, the potential for relocation and continual economic impact increases. When small business is supported, large impacts are made. Our tourism strategy needs to shift beyond catching up with the marketing levies and familiarization tours of our neighbours. We need to find the John Normans in our midst and dream big with them.

A version of this post appeared originally in the Times & Transcript. Click here for more of Jenna Morton’s column, She Said.

She Said: Choose to Be … In This Place

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