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Rendering: EXP

Project: Village finds grassroots solutions to rural community challenges

By Scott Pettigrew May 10, 2023 | 5:12 PM

An environmental organization in the small fishing village of Blacks Harbour is stepping up to the plate to address several important keys to community success — including housing, transportation, and food security — through its Project: Village initiative.

Eastern Charlotte Waterways, or ECW, is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year with its original vision statement “to accomplish through community awareness and participation, which will promote viable means to the safe and accountable management and development of the environment.”

“At that time we were very much a community-based watershed group and small environmental non-profit,” says ECW executive director Briana Cowie. “But it’s interesting because when I reflect …. we found a lot of similar themes, like what we’re doing with Project: Village right now, are very resonant. Like creating a self-sustaining and environmentally friendly economic base for our communities.”

Although much ECW’s work still focuses on the watershed, with Project: Village, the lens has shifted to other foundational community pillars like housing, food and transportation.

Project: Village is a collaborative rural model promoting community growth. In addition to the housing and food initiatives, the project also aims to address the lack of affordable transportation via car sharing and affordable community taxi-like services. It also ultimately hopes to create more economic opportunities for the people living in Blacks Harbour, St. George and Grand Manan.

The Project: Village housing initiative has spun off into its own organization to better address the financial and logistical complexities of building and managing apartments.  The organization is setting the stage for the construction of two buildings, each with 15 two- or three-bedroom units, with the goal of providing housing for families. The project has gone through the pre-development feasibility stage and is now moving onto design, working with EXP architects in Saint John.

“It’s a mixed development,” says Mathieu Rouleau of Project: Village Housing.

The buildings themselves will be 50 per cent rent-geared-to-income, with the goal of relieving some of the pressure off the affordable housing waitlists. The other 50 per cent will be market rent units. Each building will have 20 per cent accessible units.

Rouleau says he hopes to break ground on the project in late 2023 “before freeze up”. The project is being funded through grants and programs via the province, the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation, and development incentives available to the municipality.

Rouleau says housing is a need, and lack of adequate housing hinders community and economic development.

“It can be tough for smaller communities, especially rural communities, to encourage or incentivize typical developers to come and build housing,” he says. “So as a non-profit, affordable housing developer, our role is to operate in that place where there’s a need, but where the private developers aren’t able to build.”

The land was a contribution of the village of Blacks Harbour including critical infrastructure that had been run into the site, and the organization is working with Kit Hickey, the executive director of Housing Alternatives Inc. to provide advice on the development and property management aspect of the project. And of course, there has been ongoing community engagement on the project, to both help guide the process and also to get a feel for who might be ultimately living in these units.

Rouleau foresees older people who want to stay in the community, downsizing into the units, as well as workers from out of town moving in.

“Housing in rural communities should meet the needs of current residents, and encourage new residents,” he says.

Maintaining a scale and scope comparable to the Blacks Harbour community is an important part of this project, Rouleau says.

“You want to make sure it fits into the community,” he says. “How it integrates into what’s already there and the surrounding neighbourhood is important.”

The plan as it stands now, is to have buildings that are lower to the ground, with green space in the middle of the two, and a plan to develop trails in the area closer to the water. The design is reflective of the architectural styles already present in Blacks Harbour, so it will fit in well with the existing community.

“You don’t want to just have a box where people live in, you want it to be a livable space,” he says.

“We are aiming to do a higher performance build, increased energy efficiency… that’s really where ECW’s focus as an environmentally friendly NGO set the tone for that.”

They’re hoping that the funding will align for them to showcase something that is high efficiency or even net zero with the buildings.

Then there’s the grow tower project at the former Freshmart building. ECW bought the property in 2021 and is in the process of setting up a series of approximately 50 grow towers to bring sustainable fresh leafy greens to the community.

“We selected five different plant species: two different types of lettuce, arugula, basil and cilantro,” Cowie says of the initial towers.

That’s for the main space at the property.  She says ECW is already thinking about other uses for the additional space.

“Future use could be building research and skills for controlled environment agriculture with local universities,” she says, adding that ECW has been in talks with government departments to see how they can target current and future programming around food security strategies.

“ECW at its core is an environmental and social purpose-driven organization,” says Cowie. “It’s a grassroots initiative, so we do all kinds of collaborations with different community partners.”

Harkening back to the organization’s original vision, Cowie says the farming project supports a number of the organization’s core goals.

“It’s a way to reduce carbon emissions by having closer options, and it’s year-round growing as well. And the building is being outfitted with geothermal.”

That sustainable approach with an eye towards the future, while addressing the challenges of the present, is how ECW is positioning itself via Project: Village, Cowie says.

“The Project: Village model is an opportunity for other municipalities to say ‘How do we take a cohesive and holistic approach to be able to create resilient rural communities?’”

Alex Graham is a reporter with Huddle, an Acadia Broadcasting content partner.


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