A How-To Manual For Growing A Community

Port Grocer Cafe, Port Medway, Nova Scotia

By Linda Best

Please note: This article appears in the Winter 2016/17 issue of the Slow Money Journal and was republished on Resilience in March 2017.

In the small township of Port Medway on Nova Scotia’s South Shore, Annabelle Singleton and Debra Melanson, their husbands, and their staff have made The Port Grocer into the heart of the community.

Port Medway was settled around 1760 by fishermen who helped develop this area into a thriving shipping community. Cargoes of salted and dried fish were shipped to the United States, the Caribbean, and South America. Lumber from the sawmills of Greenfield, Charleston, and Mill Village were loaded on ships and sailed to foreign ports.

Although it’s still a working port, as is the way of many villages, population decreased over time and elements essential to vibrant community expired.

But that sense of community has been revived in this beautiful seaside village. The 200 full-time and 100 summer residents support a writers’ festival, art shows, history exhibits, and restoration of the 1832 “meeting house” and a cemetery dating back to the late 1700s.

So there was fertile ground for Annabelle and Deb to envision turning the general store and post office—which had long been for sale—into a space for the whole community.

They have accomplished this by providing healthy, wholesome, mostly local food; providing a venue for art, music, and culture; being a fair and equitable employer of six to eight local residents; supporting other local, small businesses; creating an inviting outdoor space through edible and native landscaping; providing community space for continuing education and wellness; and, most importantly, being the most welcoming, friendly, kind people you could imagine!

Annabelle’s passions include rural community development, environmental protection, and healthy food. Her background as an environmental consultant has enhanced her appreciation for rural living and the value that an entrepreneurial spirit brings to healthy, economically sustainable communities. With more than 23 years of restaurant kitchen experience, Deb has turned her passion for cooking and baking into The Port Grocer’s great-quality food, all prepared from scratch.

But, it almost didn’t happen. With a little bit of their own capital, they met with every lender they could find and heard nothing but “no.” Then they were intrigued to discover that FarmWorks “Gentle Dragons” wanted to hear from farmers and food businesspeople.

FarmWorks Investment Co-operative Limited is a Community Economic Development Investment Fund that in four years has raised $1.4 million from 314 investors and made loans to 56 businesses across Nova Scotia to increase the availability of healthy food. As loans are repaid, the capital is available for new loans. Shareholders receive 35-, 20-, and 10-percent provincial tax credits for five, ten, and 15-year investments. The volunteer directors administer the investments and the loan portfolio, and provide mentoring and other support to clients.

Annabelle and Debra came and discovered that these “Dragons” were lending Nova Scotian shareholders’ money to support food-related community economic development across the province. Just one month later, after many conversations and visits, all FarmWorks due diligence was done and The Port Grocer received a check.

The next chapters are being written. Friday Night Port Jam sessions bring people from near and far to enjoy dinner together and listen to wonderful music—and the musicians include the owners! Brunches bring locals together with tourists who learn about the good things growing in this community—including things right behind The Port Grocer. A garden for everyone—not to mention the vineyard—is attracting people outside, then inside to enjoy food grown 50 feet from the kitchen.

The Port Grocer is meeting the need for acceptance and companionship in this community, and in Anabelle’s words, “Part of our job at The Port Grocer is not just to be there to take cash across the counter, but to pick up the phone and spend an extra couple of minutes talking to people who may be home alone.” Every day, volunteers come to ask what they need help with, including bartending on pub nights, cutting the grass, and now building a three-season deck onto the building to expand their seating.

The Port Grocer has to grow to accommodate the increasing numbers of people attracted to the warmth of the owners, the quality of the food, the music, and the art. The vision of “a healthy, sustainable community centered around food, music, art, and education” has become reality.

Across Nova Scotia, more than 100 jobs are directly or indirectly linked to FarmWorks loans, and research is underway to more clearly define outcomes to date. The successes of The Port Grocer and the other businesses supported by $5,000 to $25,000 FarmWorks loans demonstrate that small investments, done right, can be a very big deal.