Building a village in the Village of Blacks Harbour

BLACKS HARBOUR – A unique project in community building is happening in Blacks Harbour.

Eastern Charlotte Waterways (ECW) is spearheading the initiative, known as Project : Village.

Three key areas of need have been identified: transportation, housing and food. The overarching objective of the project is sustainable rural community development, creating an integrated live, work, play community in Eastern Charlotte.

“Often times when we try to tackle one issue in rural communities it’s symptomatic of multiple other things going on,” explained ECW executive director Briana Cowie.

It’s not possible to attract people to an area simply by building a home. In order for people to want to come to the area and stay, they need a home as well as a job and other services that go together to create a community.

“It’s all about rural, sustainable development,” said Cowie about the objective of the project.

Blacks Harbour is what is termed a food desert. A food desert is an area that does not have easy access to fresh food. There is no grocery store in the town, the nearest being about 20 kilometres away. The need to travel long distances to get food brings up another interconnected issue – transportation.

As a non-profit with its work centred on environmental sustainability, ECW wants to find ways to help people move around the region more efficiently without as great a reliance on personal vehicles.

Cowie said that all of the initiatives Project : Village has identified as core needs have come from consultations and work being done at the regional level looking at what is needed to help the southwestern area of the province grow and prosper.

“All of the identified pillars of Project : Village came directly from participation at a regional level,” explained Cowie.

Food insecurity is a growing problem with inflation driving food prices to levels that are becoming unaffordable for some. In New Brunswick, only eight per cent of the fresh vegetables consumed here are grown here.

Project : Village has acquired the location of the former Freshmart grocery store in town and is working on transforming it into a lab, a vertical hydroponic growing operation and community hub. Two charging stations will be installed for electric vehicles. The facility will have the first public washrooms in Blacks Harbour.

ECW acquired the Freshmart in May 2021 and “we’re expanding our microbiology lab from about 300 square feet into 1,300 square feet,” said Cowie.

The indoor farming operation will produce about “7,200 pounds of fresh produce,” when it’s fully up and running explained Cowie.

In-season, there will be outdoor beds for growing greens and vegetables. Landscaping will include space for community events and night markets.

Transportation and reducing the environmental footprint of people getting around in the southwest of the province is another critical factor. Access to non-personal transportation is an issue in rural areas generally. In New Brunswick, there is no inter-city transit infrastructure. It’s not possible to take a bus or train from Saint John to Fredericton, for example. There is, at least, some intra-city transit in urban centres. That does not exist in rural areas either.

Charlotte County Dial-a-Ride has been in operation since 2005. It relies on volunteer drivers to provide low-cost transportation options for people within Charlotte County. The program is open to those who live in remote areas without access to personal transit, those in lower income strata who may not be able to afford a personal vehicle and those with disabilities.

Earlier this autumn, the Project : Village Car Share program was launched. Currently there are two electric vehicles in service. The cars can be booked online and are available 24/7. Cars are currently available in Saint Andrews and St. Stephen. The goal is to add two more to the fleet in the near future.

Cowie and her team are working to investigate and develop more fulsome and robust transit systems that can help move more people around in the region and further reduce the carbon footprint of the area. She is hopeful that with the coming changes to local governance and greater responsibility under the umbrella of the regional service commissions there may be opportunities to explore the idea of a broader regional transit system again.

“Our whole county creates 72,138 metric tons of CO2 annually,” because the area is so car-dependent, she explained. The project was then designed around how much of those emissions could be reduced through various transportation options, of which the car share was one.

The third major pillar of Project : Village is housing. A plot of land has been acquired in Blacks Harbour and a first phase of the housing component is being planned.

Initially, 24 rental units will be built, half of which will be posted at market rent and the other half will be posted as affordable units with rents being at 80 per cent of the market rental rate.

Cowie explained that the split between market and affordable units is purely one of financial viability. The market rents will help subsidize the operating costs on the affordable units.

There is a fourth pillar of the Project : Village concept that is still in development: jobs and economic growth. On that track, the project is looking at setting up an Integrated Multi-Trophic Aquaculture (IMTA). IMTA operations work by replicating, or mimicking, the natural ecosystem that exists in the open ocean in a smaller, confined aquaculture setting.

“IMTA is supposed to recreate the natural ecosystem benefits of an area but also to have optimal productivity and growth for whatever species you’re trying to grow,” Cowie said.

It does this by raising a variety of species such as fish, bivalves and other sea life (seaweeds and kelps) as would be seen in the open ocean and taking advantage of the symbiotic relationships between them for sustainable, regenerative aquaculture.