No Regular John: How Bonavista’s Mayor is Building Up the Peninsula

In Bonavista, residents, not tourists, are building the unprecedented boom

John Norman is the mayor of Bonavista. He is also at the helm of two companies: Bonavista Creative and Bonavista Living, both dedicated to investing in local properties with the express goals of increasing the livability and long-term sustainability of both the town and Peninsula.

Bonavista has been having anomalous growth both economically and residentially over the past five years, while other communities on the island have been characterized by decline.  Housing prices across the island have fallen by 11% in the past three years; Bonavista has grown by 57%. Businesses elsewhere have closed their doors, Bonavista has seen 31 new businesses open in that same period.

So, what gives?

Housing prices across the island have fallen by 11% in the past three years; Bonavista has grown by 57%.

John Norman left Memorial University nine years ago with a degree in education and earth science. He and his partner both had job offers in their respective fields in Bonavista — the town they were both from. It was at this time that Norman and his partner decided to purchase three real-estate properties: two heritage designated homes, and one piece of beach-front property. Norman believed that even at that time, these properties were way undervalued and could be sold again after a bit of TLC.

Norman explains that these initial purchases coincided with the restoration of the Garrick Theatre — a local landmark that had been abandoned for the last decade and was facing demolition. The restoration was spearheaded by a local historical society which fundraised heavily with one goal: restore the theatre not for waves of tourists, but for the locals in the town. Pointing out that the theatre closed once, under the stewardship of these same locals, would be to miss the point.

The point is that tourists don’t make a town – residents do.

This restoration marked for Norman a perspective shift from flipping properties in isolation, to the bulk restoration of what he calls “heritage clusters.”

Building Heritage Clusters

Flipping any individual abandoned property is a bit of a waste if it sits between two other dilapidated dumps. Flip five at a time, and suddenly not only are they all worth the investment, but you also start to inspire the neighbour to spruce up their own digs to ride the property value wave.

However, despite the restoration of heritage clusters, one key component of a vibrant town remained: a thriving mainstreet.

Church Street, as it is now called, has changed names and hands over a half-dozen times in its almost 500 years of life. The buildings came and went, as did their tenants, but over the years one thing remained constant — Church Street was run by artisans and craftspeople.

Tinsmiths, coopers, carpenters, blacksmiths, all lined the main street and provided not only jobs for the other residents, but also the opportunity to export products to elsewhere on the island and even abroad. At this time, Bonavista was the only other city on the island, weighing in at 2,500 people, just behind St. Johns with 4,000.

Now fast-forward 300 years later to 1992: the cod are gone, other fisheries are getting whacked, and all of the artisans products have been replaced by cheap imports … what’s a little outport to do?

Well, after a number of successful real-estate deals involving the buying and restoring of beloved residences about town, Norman and his partner decided to go public with Bonavista Living: a company dedicated to the restoration of heritage residences of the town. However, in adjunction to this, Norman also created Bonavista Creative: a company dedicated to the buying and restoring of commercial properties as well.

The rationale was simple: “Great places to live are also often great places to visit” he explains. So his goals thus aligned — make Bonavista a place that people will actually want to live in, and then the tourists will follow.

That for Norman meant seeking out restaurants and shops that would provide both things to do for the locals and attractions for tourists simultaneously — having one’s cake and eating it too.

This has been the rationale for everything Norman does – do it for the residents first, and treat the tourists as a bonus. The reason for this should be obvious to anyone who has experienced a Newfoundland winter – it’s rather uncharitable here most of the year.

Avoiding Dark Zones

Normally, towns or governments build “dark zones” made out of tourism-dedicated properties for 8 months out of 12. To avoid these dark zones, Norman has turned his eyes to the past and is seeking to remake the main street of yesteryear with the artisans of today: chocolatiers, coffee roasters, chefs, software designers, architects, soap-makers etc. It turns out that what exactly gets made is much less important than the fact that it gets made.

These businesses draw their owners and employees into Bonavista with the express cooperation and guidance of Bonavista Living/Creative and the many business services and guidance opportunities being set up here. Bonavista recently set up a common business incubator in the same building as the post-office.

Building Place Capital

All of this contributes to what Norman refers to as “place capital.” Put another way: in a digital world where a startup can set up shop anywhere, what makes one rural town different than another?

In Bonavista’s case, the major draw was a large number of historical and undervalued properties, and a strong sense of history. By returning focus back to the livability for the residents of the area instead of the tourists, Norman was able to incentivize what he calls “former urbanites” to move to Bonavista from all over the planet. Many of these new inhabitants brought their jobs and businesses to Bonavista, and many more started new enterprises with the help of Bonavista Creative.

This makes Bonavista the fastest growing real-estate development zone in the province.

This has resulted in a very rare problem: an abundance of 30 and 40 somethings looking to move to a rural area with the interest of starting businesses and buying up old dilapidated properties, BUT the town not having enough of said old dilapidated buildings to go around. To get into a home renovated by Bonavista Living at this moment would land you on a waiting list until 2020. This makes Bonavista the fastest growing real-estate development zone in the province.

Norman is hesitant to suggest that this strategy can be carbon-copied elsewhere. More than anything it is a reflection of the unique assets of the town itself. Bonavista has not had a great fire like St. John’s or Harbour Grace (its other rival). Meaning that many of the oldest buildings in the province are actually still standing in Bonavista – the largest wooden church in the province is currently getting rid of its old vinyl siding.

This abundance of heritage inventory meant that Bonavista was in a unique position to be invested in. But it’s not the investment itself, rather the wisdom which comes from a solid historical grounding, that makes the investment worthwhile.

“You have to look at your own community’s identity. I hear people saying, and I’m sure people would love to hear me say it, but I just don’t think that it’s accurate, ‘well, restoring some old buildings worked in Bonavista so we have to restore some old buildings!,’ it’s because it’s a part of fabric of the community – it’s understood by most and accepted and appreciated by most. Another community might have a completely different identity.”

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