The Newfoundland village takes its name from explorer John Cabot. “O buon vista!” – Italian for “Oh happy sight!” he is said to have exclaimed as his ship steered into the peninsula in 1497. His views of a shoreline with rock-formed caves, puffins nesting and icebergs breaking through Atlantic waters likely have not changed drastically since he landed. The homes and businesses built around the then-thriving fishery have, however. Today, some 4,000 people live amidst that history, including local entrepreneur John Norman who is working to preserve it.
Three years ago Norman began buying up local properties, many of which were dilapidated and vacant. His goal was to upgrade them to their previous condition when they were built decades and decades ago. He chose buildings with architectural and historical significance that were under threat. By restoring them, the team would be ‘awakening quaint laneways and fishermen’s footpaths while offering quintessential and authentic outport space’, as their website describes.
“When we first started people had no idea what we were doing,” explained Crystal Fudge, who is both marketing manager and the town archivist. “They just knew that John was buying a lot of properties and weren’t really sure why.”
To allay fears that the business would buy buildings to tear them down, Fudge took to Facebook and Instagram. She shared photos of the properties, their family and architectural histories, and described the specific restoration. She pulled from multiple sources, including archives, marriage records and conversations with family and neighbours.
Social media has opened up opportunities for the team. People buy properties even before they’re restored now because they’ve seen photos, and want to customize to their specifications. Journalists reach out for stories. (One dubbed Norman the ‘Baron of Bonavista.’) Recently, a group of Memorial University students wanted to do an architectural project on the Thomas Randell House because of an Instagram picture.
Notably, the business Facebook page has more than 2,000 likes – a not-so-modest number considering that’s more than half the village population.
“A lot of people that grew up in Bonavista that have moved away often love to see family homes and neighbours’ homes and see what’s happening in their neighbourhood,” said Fudge.
Fudge caters to people’s interest, posting at least once per day on Instagram and sharing that through to Facebook. She uses the business names as hashtags and related non-branded tags like #NLheritage and #carpentryporn. Before-and-afters and short videos perform best, and early morning and later at night are ideal posting times, particularly on Sundays. When she gets new followers, she checks to see where they’re from – spanning to the US, the UK and elsewhere.
Audiences are both residential and commercial.
On the commercial side, Bonavista Creative restores buildings on the main street in town and rents them to businesses at reasonable rates. This minimizes the risk and cost to new business owners.
For example, Norman identified a vacant, tiny white building set back from the main street. It wasn’t a great building; being from the 1890s it was no longer liveable, plus, it was unsightly. It had one window in the front and was engulfed by a massive brown building beside it.
Bonavista Creative turned that building into the Levi Templeman House it is today. They raised it from 1.5 stories to three, painted it a salmon colour, added windows and made it liveable. The name came from the former owner, a merchant in his family’s fishing business. The Templeman House now hosts small businesses including East Coast Glow, which thrived so much in the space they’ve outgrown it and are moving into another Bonavista Creative property this spring.
“We have a list of people wanting to move to Bonavista and open a business, but we can’t provide spaces quickly enough for them,” said Fudge. In those cases, Norman will help that business find another space in town.
From a residential standpoint, there has also been a knock-on effect as well.
“Since we started doing restoration and buying properties and fixing them up we’ve noticed that a lot of the community have taken it upon themselves to do the same,” said Fudge. “A lot of houses around town now are being restored just by private citizens.”
For Norman, who started his businesses to preserve his heritage, “Oh happy sight!” indeed.
Getting Digital with is Devon Burke’s monthly look at how bricks-and-mortar businesses and entrepreneurs are using online channels to build their brand. Do you have a business that’s just starting out? Reach out to Devon Burke to share your story.
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