Eastern Charlotte Waterways launches Project: Village in Blacks Harbour

Submitted photo An electric vehicle, rural car-sharing service for the village and surrounding communities as part of Project: Village is ready to go once issues around insurance are resolved, Briana Cowie, the environmental group’s executive director, told The Saint Croix Courier. Pictured, from left are Eastern Charlotte Waterways staff members Brayden Harker, Curtis Forbes, and Kalen Mawer.

BLACKS HARBOUR – A local environmental non-profit with ambitious goals to give Blacks Harbour a boost is pushing ahead with a plan to build 24 housing units for an estimated $3 million.

The housing, a mix of affordable and market-rate rentals, is part of a three-pronged approach Eastern Charlotte Waterways unveiled in August with its surprise pilot program dubbed Project: Village. Along with a multi-phase housing development, transportation and food are on the group’s new to-do list.

Its electric vehicle, rural car-sharing service for the village and surrounding communities is ready to go once issues around insurance are resolved, Briana Cowie, the environmental group’s executive director, told The Saint Croix Courier.

Her team is also working with engineers to figure out how to turn the shuttered Freshmart on Main Street into a giant, year-round greenhouse to create a local, healthy and affordable source of food.

Project: Village might seem an odd tack for Blacks Harbour-based Eastern Charlotte Waterways, which since 1993 has been focused on environmental endeavours such as water quality monitoring, marine ecosystems, and climate change.

“This has been a question that’s popped up a lot,” said Cowie. “I wouldn’t say it’s a departure from our original make-up. It’s more an expansion to be more inclusive to community health, as well as environmental health.”

The pivot came after the group’s board decided a year ago to figure out how it could help build more sustainable rural communities.

“When you look at some of the root problems in rural communities, and really all around Canada, a lot of it is related to affordable housing, access to transportation, food security or growing local economies,” said Cowie. “That’s where the notion of Project: Village came up, to build on the future health of rural communities.”

For its housing development, Eastern Charlotte Waterways created a new entity, Project Village Housing. The group hired Mat Rouleau as project manager and enlisted Saint John affordable housing veteran Kit Hickey as a mentor.

The 24 units are a first phase of the project, which is going up on 7.5 acres next to the Fundy Health Centre. The group received the land in December as an in-kind donation by the previous village council.

They’ve secured their first $50,000 from the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC). The seed funding is helping pay for things like architects and an environmental site assessment.

Renderings are needed to access additional funds. Cowie said concept drawings are being drawn up by a trio at EXP Architects, including Morgan Lanigan, Annie Taylor and Mellissa Wakefield. The community will get a chance to offer feedback at a public meeting in mid-November.

Not quite on the backburner, but further down on the list, is food. Eastern Charlotte Waterways bought the former Freshmart from its owner for $275,000. The supermarket was shut in 2019 after more than five decades in business, leaving the village without a grocery store.

The initial plan is to use the building for a greenhouse, but the hope is to add aquaculture down the road, said Cowie.

“A lot of what has to happen there is we have to renovate and retrofit the building,” she said. Engineers are helping figure out things like energy and plumbing needs, she said.

In addition to fresh, affordable food, the program is expected to create local jobs and reduce greenhouse gases by producing products locally.

The car-sharing service is furthest along, but not quite up and running as Project: Village fine tunes details, such as insurance costs. “We need to know these details before we get the cars on the road,” said Cowie.

The group acquired four vehicles with a $425,000 grant from a federal environmental fund and hired Rose Beltran-Umas as project manager to head up the transportation initiative. The team is doing demonstrations of the online booking system and how to charge the vehicles. Once the service starts, community members wanting to use one of the vehicles can register online, pay a membership fee and book. Cowie declined to estimate the membership fee.

Blacks Harbour had a bus service in the past, but the fixed-route system wasn’t ideal to serve the village’s needs, since the population is dispersed, said Cowie.

Cowie said she and her team have gotten lots of calls from other communities eager to learn from the project.

“When we recognize that our rural communities have such history, coastal roots and strength and resilience, (we can try) to ensure that they stay the way they are and also grow,” she said. “A lot of people don’t necessarily see Blacks that way. It’s been historically overlooked. It’s beautiful and has a lot of natural capital and we just want to help out.”

Janet Whitman