Bil Atwood, Project Manager for the Town of Lockeport, reluctantly poses for a photo in front of a major new construction project in Seacaps Park at the centre of town. He folds his arms and grumbles good-naturedly about being in the picture at all. He wants this story to be about Lockeport, not him.
Behind Bil, carpenters are roofing an unusual multi-purpose building with a tower – reminiscent of a lighthouse – and a stage in front. This is the new concert venue for events like the Harmony Bazaar Festival of Women and Song. Still in its infancy, the festival is already attracting headliners like Melanie Doane, Rita MacNeil and Sylvia Tyson. But the building will also double as indoor parking for the Medical First Responders vehicle. First Responders, Harmony Bazaar, the Town and the federal government through the Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency (ACOA) are all partners in the project. “All the planets have lined up at once,” is how Bil describes the unusual partnership behind the project.
Around town, the sidewalks beside the Post Office have been replaced. New gardening containers filled with fresh soil line the street. But this is no ordinary touch-up for the tourist season. Something is going on, something is growing and it’s got deep roots and wide branches. Just in the past year, the boardwalk across the back of the beach was extended on both ends – Bil says local cynics can no longer call it the boardwalk to nowhere. The town built a look-off platform on the highest point in town cleverly designed to resemble a widow’s walk, a local architectural figure that looks like a small deck on top of a house. A new sign on the high school declares it a UNESCO Associated Schools Program Network (ASPnet) school, a network of more than 8,500 educational institutions in 180 countries. The Lockeport Elementary and High Schools are the first in Nova Scotia. These developments are in addition to a recently constructed outdoor pavilion in front of the lighthouse-like building in Seacaps Park, the large historic photos mounted on buildings and improvements to the ball field.
Lockeport is bustling with construction projects. It’s building partnerships with every government agency, organization and business in sight. Everyone from Mayor Darian Huskilson and his small council and staff to Lockeport’s Economic Development Committee to the citizens themselves seems to be bursting with ideas. The question is what’s behind all this positive activity? Why now?
A Troubled History
Right through my childhood in the 1960s, Lockeport was a prosperous fishing town with three fish plants, a busy retail centre complete with a bank, grocery stores and clothing stores, gas stations, a drugstore, a bowling alley, a hardware store, a shoe store, a barber shop, a billiards room and even a jailhouse with town police. It was a self-sufficient like island town. Just a decade later, all that had changed. In 1975 a fire gutted the center of town. Another burned down the biggest fish plant. From that date to the cod moratorium of 1989, the town’s fortunes declined as fast as the fish stocks. In that fifteen-year period, the grocery stores and gas stations closed, the last fish plant closed, train and bus service ended. People moved away. Student enrollment at the crumbling schools declined. Tax revenues dried up. The town hit rock bottom.
Starting in the 1990s, the pendulum began to swing the other way. Something had changed. At the brink of collapse and running out of federal relief funding, the town and its people had to forget what they had lost. People looked around and asked themselves what they could do to bring the town back to life. What did they have left that could be fashioned into a future? As it turned out, the answer was the same as it might be in many a coastal town and the same as it had always been in Lockeport itself – the sea, a gorgeous stretch of beach leading to town, a spectacular setting, the school, the determination of the people who remained.
Through the 90s, two local families each built a set of cottages at either end of Lockeport’s Crescent Beach. One fish plant and a thriving little grocery store called “The Town Market” opened. A micro-lending organization was set up to help small entrepreneurs get a start. The abandoned rail line became a walking trail. Then in the mid-1990’s, the Beach Centre was built. With its sweeping lines echoing the sand dunes, it’s what Storm Cunningham calls an iconic building.
Cunningham is the founder of the Revitalization Institute in Washington DC and the author of ReWealth, a book about revitalization. He was the keynote speaker at the Lockeport Revitalization Conference held October 18 to 19, 2009 at the high school. He saw in Lockeport a classic example of a key principle of revitalization at work – the best thing about hitting rock bottom is the bounce. “When people reach a certain level of pain and they’ve tried enough things that don’t work, they step back and say, ‘What do we really need to do to make things work here?’”
In the second and final part of this story about how a little Nova Scotia fishing town remade itself, I’ll explore some of Storm Cunningham’s ideas about community rebirth, introduce important characters in Lockeport’s revitalization story and describe the biggest threats the town faces and the most promising possibilities that came out of the revitalization self-examination.
All photos by Darcy Rhyno
Parrot’s Pins bowling alley and restaurant in Lockeport getting a paint job
Gazebo at end of beach boardwalk in Lockeport
Bil Atwood before Lockeport’s new multi-purpose building
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