Trepassey area economic development group defies the odds

     One of the oldest economic development groups in the province is celebrating 40 years of service this month.
     The Southern Avalon Development Association, based in Trepassey, is also one of the last of its kind.
     In the ‘70s and ‘80s, the province was littered with such groups, all established with the goal of picking up the local economy in rural communities and regions. In the early 1990s, the Liberal government of Clyde Wells stopped funding the associations, diverting the money to Regional Economic Development Boards (REDBs), a brainchild of the Economic Recovery Commission headed by sociologist Doug House. The REDBs lasted about 20 years with all but a couple closing their doors two years ago when the provincial and governments stopped funding them.
     Through all that change and government flip flopping, the development association in Trepassey has managed to soldier on, serving the nearby communities of Portugal Cove South, Biscay Bay, St. Shott’s and St. Vincent’s-St. Stephen’s-Peter’s River in addition to Trepassey.
Last week, SADA officials celebrated the association’s 40th birthday during the Annual General Meeting. About 35 people attended the event at the association’s Opportunities Complex, where it also stages a dinner theatre, one of many activities undertaken by the board to create work for local people.
     The association’s daily activities are managed by coordinator Yvonne Fontaine, who took on the job in 2009. She’s the seventh person to fill the role and has been faced with some of the toughest challenges yet.
     Fontaine noted the association has also had only seven different presidents in its 40 years, one of the longest serving being the late Ray Molloy of St. Shotts. Another St. Shottsman, who went on to create Emerald Sods and serve as a mayor in his community, Pat Hewitt, was one of the earlier co-ordinators.
     Fontaine says one of the things that saved SADA in 1992 when the province stopped supporting development groups was that it owned its building. SADA managed to rent office space to the entity that was supposed to replace it, the Irish Loop Development Board, headed by Bay Bulls councillor Harold Mullowney, who took a broader view of the value of development associations than did the agency which created his board.
     “So for 16 years the Irish Loop Development Board rented space in our building,” said Fontaine, “and that was a really good revenue stream.”
     An Employment Services Office, funded first by Ottawa and later by the provincial government, also rented office space. The province pulled funding from those offices a couple of years ago too.
     “If we didn’t have this building we probably wouldn’t be around today,” Fontaine allowed. “It was a great revenue source. But now the zonal boards are all gone and Employment Services are all gone. The last few years have been really challenging trying to maintain the building and pay staff and create economic development at the same time. It’s hard.”
     Depending on the number of projects it’s able to get going during the course of a year, SADA can have as many as 40 local people on the payroll, making it the biggest employer in the region. The jobs are generally not high paying and only temporary. They are also dependent to a large extent on government grants. But the bang for the economic buck is several factors times higher than equivalent amounts of money the two levels of government might spend within their own line departments.
     The projects often also support local businesses in that they attract visitors to the area who spend money while they are there. A good example is the local dinner theatre.
     “We’re in our third season now,” says Fontaine. “It’s a struggle because when you can only sit 50 people you don’t have the numbers (to make big revenues).”
But SADA uses it to boost local businesses by offering theatre guests a chance to visit the ecological reserve at nearby Mistaken Point, eat in one of the local business and stay in the local motel or bed & breakfast, and even get a massage. It also partners with the local Lions Club selling 50/50 tickets during the show with half the proceeds going to the Lions’ Sick Fund, which helps local people with medical expenses and the rest split between the Dinner Theatre operation and the Lions Club.
     The Dinner Theatre is uniquely local. The play is written by Portugal Cove South writer Pearl Coombs and performed by five local actors, who also cook and serve the dinner to the guests during the play. About 40 other local people, including some artists, musicians and artisans, also volunteer their services, performing for free and helping to serve dinner and clean up afterwards.
     Fontaine said the food that goes into the preparation of the meals is purchased from local stores.
     “We’ve had over 700 people through (to the theatre) so far and we have three more shows to go,” she notes. “A majority of them are from outside the area. We’ve had them from all over – Trinity Bay, Bonavista Bay, different countries.”
SADA has also managed to survive by taking on the administration functions for groups that can’t afford their own full time paid staff, including the Mistaken Point Ambassadors and most recently, the Irish Loop Chamber of Commerce.”
     Fontaine also applies for, coordinates and manages funds under the provincial government’s Community Economic Enhancement Program, a small fund designed to help rural workers top up their hours to qualify for Employment Insurance benefits. SADA does the same when it comes to student employment programs.
     “You’re always trying to come up with ways to create economic development and create employment for people,” Fontaine said.
      “A lot of people don’t know what we do,” she admitted. “When you’re so busy you don’t have time to toot your own horn… But we do do a lot of work behind the scenes that nobody can see.”
     She credits SADA’s success to its volunteers.
     “I hope we’re making a bit of a difference,” Fontaine said. “We’ll keep plugging at it. We’re here for the long run.”

Posted on September 28, 2015 .