Zita’s missionary zeal

Zita’s missionary zeal

Since 2005, the Shorefast Foundation has invested $63.5 million in an ambitious social experiment. Its purpose? To reverse Fogo Islandʼs 50-year trend of increasing unemployment and declining population. Now, almost a decade later, itʼs an apt time to ask if this impressive investment has made a difference. Or, does the Islandʼs future continue to look much like its past?

Looking for the surest, fastest way to get a rise out of millionaire philanthropist Zita Cobb? Suggest that the death and decline of rural places are the natural order of things. Tell this loyal daughter of Joe Batt’s Arm (pop. 700) that progress is rightly built on the ashes of her forefathers, that isolated places with dwindling populations and traditional resource-based economies should actually be encouraged to go gently into their good night. Then suggest she has wasted more than $63 million ($41 million of it from her own bank account) on a fruitless attempt to preserve an over-romanticized version of Fogo Island’s past. Tell her she would have been better served by giving each of the island’s residents an equal share of the money so they could find their own merry way in the world. Go ahead. Tell her. I dare you.

I dared. Not quite so boldly perhaps, but my message was the same: why bother trying to prop up a flagging economy? An economy which, for the better part of five decades, has been in steady decline – on an isolated island which Cobb herself describes as “far away from far away.”

In other words, why is Fogo Island worth saving? If, indeed, it can be saved.

To the uninitiated, Fogo Island – not to be confused with Fogo which, along with Joe Batt’s Arm, are two of 11 communities on the island – is the biggest of the dozens, if not hundreds, of islands which orbit Canada’s easternmost province. You can fly there, if you have access to a plane small enough to land on the 914-metre (3,000-foot) airstrip. Or you can drive to the town of Farewell (about an hour north of the international airport in Gander, Newfoundland) for a 45-minute ferry ride. Or, if you’re fortunate enough to have a boat, you can arrive in your own good time.

Regardless of how you arrive, when you do ultimately get there, don’t bother searching for McDonald’s or Tim Horton’s, movie cinemas or large supermarkets. They and their detritus are deliciously absent from the pristine landscape. Indeed, the closest relatives to franchise retailers are the liquor agency, Scotiabank and a unique-to-Newfoundland department store chain called Riff’s. Refreshingly, Fogo Island is an anachronism of locally-flavoured small businesses like Nicole’s Café, Growler’s Ice Cream and the whimsically-named This &That Store. You’ll find churches and graveyards in abundance, with many communities hosting up to three variations of the various faiths found on the island: Anglican, Roman Catholic, United, Pentecostal and Gospel Hall. You’ll see fishing sheds (called stages) leaning out over the water on deceptively fragile-looking wooden stilts. And you’ll discover Brimstone Head, one of the four corners of the world according to the Flat Earth Society.

Four hundred per cent larger than Manhattan, Fogo Island is home to an estimated 2,500 year-round residents (Manhattan has more than 640 times that number). To put it in perspective, there are 27,442 people per square kilometre in Manhattan; 11 for the same area in Fogo Island.

It wasn’t always so sparse. At least 5,200 people lived on the island in its heyday and 1,200 children filled the local all-grade school. Few hands were idle and obesity was an unheard-of phenomenon: virtually everyone was employed by the fishery, either rowing out to sea in their small wooden punts or gutting and drying fish onshore. They also hunted and farmed, cut wood, picked berries, sewed quilts and made furniture. Children freely roamed the harbours, skipping across ice pans for fun in the winter, swimming the freshwater ponds in summer.

The old timers say that a rising tide lifts all boats. And for hundreds of years, the fishery carried the economy of Fogo Island, much as it did for most Atlantic communities. Until the time came when the fishery failed and fishermen, including Zita Cobb’s father, burned their boats. The tide had rolled out, stranding many former fishers onshore. Thousands of abandoned people felt they had no choice but to move on. Cobb did too… for a time.

Expectations were not high for the first half of our four-night excursion to Fogo Island. Excepting the serviced camp sites in the Brimstone Head RV park, my photographer husband and I were staying at the cheapest accommodations to be had in the area: $70 a night, Wi-Fi and breakfast included.

Though there was availability for our entire stay at the newly-opened Fogo Island Inn, two nights had just about maxed out the budget (our 425 sq. ft. Lighthouse Suite costs $1,425 a night in high season). But 48 hours wasn’t enough time to capture the story I wanted to tell, so the hunt was on for more economical lodging.

I called every accommodation listed on the town’s website, but it was the weekend of the Punt Race, an annual event comprised of two-person crews rowing shallow, handcrafted wooden boats across 11 kilometres (seven miles) of open ocean. The popular competition meant this was one of the busiest weeks of the year for tourism. No one in the communities of Fogo, Joe Batt’s Arm or Tilting had a room available for July 18 and 19. Then a friend told me about Marshall and Chrissie Oake, proprietors of Brimstone Head B&B/Efficiency Unit. It was the least expensive B&B on the Island … located in the heart of Fogo … and they still had a room available.

Expectations were low indeed.

She describes her life in ebbs and flows, articulating the push and pull of place. At five she was a tuberculosis refugee, sent to a sanatorium for a year, exiled from her father, mother and six brothers. Understandably, lonely kindergarten Zita couldn’t wait to go home. Later, as a teenager living “abroad” in Ottawa, O.N., she tried to hide her island roots from her more cosmopolitan university peers. She’d learned to be embarrassed about growing up without electricity or running water. Until, that is, the death of a beloved relative – Uncle Art – reminded her, with a vengeance, of whence she came. From then on, she says, Fogo Island was her secret weapon. It was transformed from millstone to anchor, fortifying her throughout a dizzyingly successful global career: number crunching, first for the oil and gas industry, and later for high tech firm JDS Fitel; then becoming senior vice president of strategy for fibre optics innovator JDS Uniphase. When she retired in 2001, Zita Cobb was in her early 40s, with reportedly hundreds of millions of dollars to her name (some sources estimate as much as $800 million). She sailed her yacht around the world for a time, but her internal compass would be satisfied with only one destination: home.

"What will it take to keep the young crowd here? We need everything they have in St. John's." - Tom Gill, supervisor, Fogo Island Co-op

“What will it take to keep the young crowd here? We need everything they have in St. John’s.” – Tom Gill, supervisor, Fogo Island Co-op

Not only did she return to Fogo Island, but – displaying a trait common among well-to-do businesspeople in Atlantic Canada – Cobb felt a responsibility to “give back” to her community. With that in mind, she and her brother established a scholarship program so that the latest generation of Fogo Islanders would have access to the global opportunities offered by higher education.

Imagine how surprised they must have been when their well-intentioned benevolence was criticized. Severely. Cobb recalls how, during a public review of the scholarship program, one woman took her to task for paying the island’s children to leave. “Can’t you do something that will give them a reason to stay?”

Could she? If anyone could, it was Zita Cobb – a master strategist with more than 20 years’ experience helping to grow international empires.

But should she? That’s the real question.

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Dawn Chafe
About Dawn Chafe

For the past 19 years, Dawn has been editor of Atlantic Canada’s most award-winning and largest circulation business magazine: Atlantic Business Magazine. Under her editorial direction, Atlantic Business Magazine has won 14 Atlantic Journalism Awards, three TABBIE international business press awards and two KRW national business press awards.

3 Comments to “Zita’s missionary zeal”

  1. Encouraging to see that critical thinking and honest reporting are alive and well. Good intentions financed by philanthropy are a far cry from market driven sustainable economic development. Congratulations Dawn for shining light on this questionable enterprise that has somehow fooled both federal and provincial governments into “donating” $10 million plus!

  2. Avatar barbara doran // November 11, 2013 at 4:36 pm // Reply

    I was disappointed with Dawn Chafe’s article mainly because it was unbalanced and worse, mean. Zita Cobb deserves a tremendous amount of credit for her drive, her imagination and her passion to help stimulate growth and economic security in the area. Not everyone wants to live in a city where the cost of housing is high and the quality of life often lacking. Many people want to have an urban life and so they should.

    Many of the people who live on Fogo Island and in many rural communities in Newfoundland are choosing to stay there because it makes economic sense. Many of them have built and therefore own their own homes, they cut their own wood, hunt, fish, have small gardens and do all of this in places they love, with wide open spaces, clean air, a safe environment. I’m not surprised that the only reference in the article to the economic challenge brought on by rural living is from The Fraser Institute, the most conservative and unimaginative body in this country. Many outports where the fishing has dried up continue to survive and thrive despite the naysayers. Trinity and Port Rexton and the Northern Peninsula are prime examples where tourism has increased steadily over the years, where new people are arriving every day, building houses and opening small businesses, where theatre and music festivals abound.

    John and Peggy Fisher built a top of the line Inn more than a decade ago and everyone thought they were bound to fail because they are three house away from any major airport. Well they didn’t fail. It’s difficult to get a room there in the summer months, two seatings for dinner are booked pretty well every night and they are now employing dozens of locally trained people. They had a vision, they put themselves out on a limb and their vision worked. More recently they had another vision … to build a conference centre. The bookings are flowing in for the state-of-art conference centre again, against the better judgement of the naysayers. There have been four major film productions in the area since 2000 that employed hundreds of local people and the economic boost encouraged the establishment of more Inns, vacation rentals, restaurants and coffee shops, galleries, gift shops and bakeries. The world would be a sorry place if we all lived in an urban setting, the world would be even sorrier without people like Zita Cobb and the Fishers who dare to dream and dream big.

  3. Just read the full article in a magazine lent by a friend. Didn’t find it totally balanced but appreciate you certainly can’t tell such a story in a few pages or research it in a few days.
    I think the most blatant omissions were that the Inn had only been open for two months at the time of your visit during the Punt Race, that every home owner and resident on Fogo and Change Islands received the invites to dinner then spend a night and breakfast for two adults, and while very few might work for 30 years and get a pension, the employees at the Inn are getting medical and dental insurance that is only available to a few residents otherwise. They are also getting a training that, should they be interested in leaving Fogo Island, will make them top workers in the hospitality industry.
    Retired employees from Dept of Transport, the hospital and the school board, like Marshall are among the few who had an opportunity to have pension and insurance benefits. Fish plants workers didn’t and still don’t. These benefits extend to family members and the spin off is already being seen in Gander as visits to medical practices such as dentists and optometrists are being seen from people who previously could not afford this care.
    A venture that takes years to plan and build will certainly not pay for it’s self in the first couple of months. Zita Cobb has opened the Inn debt free (yes, I realize there are government grants) by putting up mostly her own funds in the form of her Foundation. There are no mortgage or interest payments, but lots of wages to be paid.
    Having spent 7 nights over 3 stays at the Inn, a night at the Quintal House in Joe Batts Arm and 2 nights at the Penney’s Vacation Home in Seldom and 2 nights in the Oasis by the Sea in Stag Harbour I can attest to the impact this venture is having on the area. Neither Quintal House or Oasis was in existence as a tourist property when the Inn was conceived and after 11 years, the Penney’s built an additional two efficiency units to compliment the 100 year old Salt Box style house they had been renting.
    Artist studios have been built by Adam Young and Winston Osmond and other accommodations have been built or renovated in Joe Batts Arm and Fogo. The artisans of the Winds and Waves Craft Guild are benefitting as are tour boat operators and if someone would put a hotdog stand at the ferry in the summer, they’d do great there too!
    The Punt race, another initiative of Shorefast makes the potential for 4 sold out weekends in the various privately owned rental accommodations. Etheridge Point Festival and Brimstone Head Folk Festival have been long established draws. The 6 year old Partridgeberry Festival on Thanksgiving weekend is also book early or be disappointed time to visit Fogo Island.
    Really, I think your article implied that you had waited until it was time and had given things a chance to prove themselves. Perhaps, like the rest of us, you’re leaving yourself an out to return. That, I can understand.
    Like most visitors who have actually stayed at the Inn and eaten and experienced it, I’ll be going back too. All the way from Gander. For a fourth stay.
    A night at the Inn beats two nights elsewhere, hands down.
    Off season rates are available on their website and rarely quoted by the media. There are also great specials and a reduced rate for your second visit.
    My admittedly biased experience can be seen on my blog at http://www.lazydaysnl.wordpress.com along with other adventures on Newfoundland.

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