Company: Bonavista Living
Location: Bonavista, Newfoundland
Industry: Property Development and Business Services
Size: Medium (50+ employees)
“Our purpose is reflective of what the town needs and if the town doesn’t flourish the business fails.”
– John Norman
COO, Bonavista Living
Bonavista Living's purpose
To enhance the community vitality of Bonavista by developing heritage properties and fostering a creative economy.
A trio of businesses
Bonavista Living, Bonavista Creative and Bonavista Creative Workshops are a collection of three businesses that work in tandem and share the same overall vision and purpose of revitalizing the community of Bonavista.
Bonavista Living is a residential real estate and accommodation development company; Bonavista Creative is focused on developing a creative economy; and Bonavista Creative Workshops produces heritage millwork, doors, windows and so on for Bonavista Living and for export.
What started as a small personal property development project has grown in a few short years into an impressive example of how to successfully rejuvenate, with care and purpose, rural towns beset by socio-economic challenges. And with other rural communities wanting to learn from their model, John Norman, founder and COO of the Bonavista Living businesses, is fielding speaking requests from colleges and universities across North America.
An entrepreneurial ecosystem
Like many Newfoundland communities, the town of Bonavista suffered from the economic downturn created by the cod moratorium, and the out-migration and other socio-economic challenges that came with it. When Norman was a university student, he saw the beginnings of rejuvenation in his home town and decided he wanted to be a part of it. With his girlfriend, he bought their first heritage home in Bonavista.
That was only the beginning for the couple. After finishing university, they found jobs in Bonavista and moved home, where they continued to buy and restore affordable heritage properties. This side gig eventually grew into Bonavista Living, which Norman and his business partners started working at full time over four years ago.
And though Bonavista Living was busy on the property development side, Norman recognized that for the company and the town to grow and prosper, Bonavista needed to attract more people and more businesses.
Partnering with the Bonavista-Trinity Regional Chamber of Commerce, they helped create a business incubation space and a zero-cost business counselling service, marking the beginning of Bonavista Creative, which also offers affordable commercial space to local businesses.
Almost 50 new businesses have started in Bonavista in the last two years – impressive growth for a town with a population of 4000.
“In Bonavista we have successfully created, as the larger service town of our region and the surrounding communities, an entrepreneurial ecosystem where you have affordable commercial space, affordable houses, and a very very high quality of life for a town of its size,” says Norman.
21st century artisanal
Bonavista has a history as a major exporter of artisanal wares, iron and tin goods, and other items. The Bonavista Living businesses stay true to this history and have helped to grow a strong creative economy in a once-depressed town.
“Maybe now it’s not blacksmithing and tinsmithing, but now on any day of the week Bonavista is shipping a gourmet sea salt to L.A., San Francisco, Vancouver and New York, chocolate and ice cream across Atlantic Canada, or coffee beans to Montreal and Toronto,” says Norman. “This is what we’re now producing and we’re evolving the economy – still an artisanal economy, but making it make sense for the 21st century.”
But don’t mistake this artisanal town for some cutesy tourist attraction. Norman notes that though Bonavista’s tourism industry has grown considerably over the past few years – the number of tourists quadrupled from 2013 to 2017 – this has been a side effect of creating a sustainable and liveable community, not the goal. “A great place to live and work more often than not becomes a great place to visit by default,” says Norman.
This is an excellent example of how a company’s purpose can have a wider positive impact beyond its original scope.
Careful and caring property development
Business decisions are guided by their purpose. “Our purpose is reflective of what the town needs and if the town doesn’t flourish the business fails,” says Norman. “The town doesn’t simply need a real estate developer to restore things. The town needs creative thought, creative development, and that is why I feel, why a lot of people I think feel, Bonavista is becoming as successful as it is because of the way we’ve done it.”
The way they’ve done it at times has meant forgoing profit in the short term in order to stick to their long-term vision. For example, Bonavista Living has chosen to limit the number of houses they sell every year, despite the demand – they have a waitlist of about a year – for more. Norman says they’re concerned that too much development will increase real estate values too quickly for the community. “We very slowly release a few buildings at a time to very carefully monitor what we’re doing.”
Along with trying to keep property prices in check, the company is committed to creating affordable housing and currently has 17 low income housing units in three neighbourhoods. “We could turn them around and sell those houses for a lot more or rent them for a lot more. But that’s not good for the town. So, we choose not to do it.”
And when a vacationer wanted to purchase one of their houses for $300k, Norman turned him down and accepted a considerably lower offer from a young couple who wanted to live in Bonavista and start a business there.
“When I say community vitality I don’t just mean more cars on the street and more walkers on the boardwalk,” says Norman. “It’s that true genuine growth with young families coming to the community, coming back to the community and being attached to the community and loving it. And that’s what we’ve been able to create.”