© Guardian photo by Steve Sharratt
Sign at entrance to Town of Georgetown (10/02/13)
It was a cold day in late January 2012 when frustration with government policy and initiatives bubbled over, crystallizing into an idea that 21 months later remains remarkably true to the original vision.
The idea was to host a conference dedicated to rural communities, the unique twist being that The Georgetown Conference, Redefining Rural would be independent in both funding and focus.
We need it. We need ordinary citizens to engage in the search for solutions to the issues facing Atlantic Canada’s rural communities. Too often we defer to government. As a region we no longer have the luxury of time because our communities face significant pressures that demand action. Now.
Georgetown is an opportunity.
This conference is not for academia, consultants, or provincial and federal politicians. This is not intended as a slight; there are already plenty of platforms for them. Instead, Georgetown is a conference for people with skin in the game, as they say.
It is for our businesspeople and artists, seniors and youth, community activists and senior civil servants, New Canadians and life-long residents, and the volunteers and professionals who make our communities work.
I am proud to say that the first organization to line up behind the idea was Newspapers Atlantic, an industry association representing 70 community papers, like The Eastern Graphic and West Prince Graphic, in communities big and small across Atlantic Canada. Our papers share a unique connection with the communities they serve. Newspapers Atlantic, of which Transcontinental boasts a significant portion of the membership, rightfully recognized no other organization is better positioned to champion a rural Atlantic Canadian initiative.
Bit by bit the pieces to this massive puzzle are falling together. Thursday delegates will arrive. Some are driving. Some are flying aboard Air Georgetown, what we’ve taken to calling the chartered Dash 8 that will carry a large number of our Newfoundland and Labrador delegates to P.E.I.
And yes, some are even walking to Georgetown.
I am inspired by the passion of Edward Wedler, Bob Maher and Heather Stewart, three residents of Annapolis County, N.S., who were so taken with the notion of The Georgetown Conference that they decided to walk the 500 kilometres from Yarmouth to Georgetown. Along the way they are collecting stories and raising awareness of rural issues. It’s damn impressive.
I am amazed by the enthusiasm of UPEI president emeritus Wade MacLauchlan, who has worked tirelessly as conference co-chair to ensure Georgetown succeeds. MacLauchlan is a rarity. He is equally respected in corporate boardrooms as on a Prince Edward Island wharf. He was the first person contacted after seed sponsorship was obtained. His involvement immediately elevated the credibility of the conference.
I am humbled that The Georgetown Conference is creating a halo effect in communities like McAdam, N.B. When town council, in partnership with the community paper, The St. Croix Courier, held a community brainstorming session, under the banner of Georgetown, it attracted a staggering 235 people. One hundred action items were identified and the community is now breaking those ideas down into specific deliverables.
What is happening in McAdam is exceptional, but not unique. Georgetown is the impetus for a new type of discussion occurring in communities right across the region. The fact that my column is appearing in a corporately owned daily newspaper is evidence of the power of Georgetown.
I am impressed when celebrities use their public profile for the greater good, for example actor and comedian Shaun Majumder, who is investing his time and money to reinvigorate the tiny Newfoundland community of Burlington where he grew up.
I marvel at the vision and determination shown by both Zita Cobb and Ben Cowan-Dewar: the former in her efforts to remake Fogo Island, Newfoundland into an artistic and architectural capital and the latter through his transformation of the formerly sleepy community of Inverness, Cape Breton into a world class golf destination through development of Cabot Links.
Both visionaries will be in Georgetown.
Most importantly King’s Playhouse will be full of exceptional grassroots community leaders from all corners of Atlantic Canada, all of whom applied to attend. But Georgetown is much more than the people in the room.
It is about the discussions that Georgetown has and will continue to spur in communities across our region. It’s about arming the right individual with the right idea. You don’t need to be in King’s Playhouse to take part. The proceedings will be live streamed on both www.peicanada.com and www.thegeorgetownconference.ca.
Saturday morning the public is invited to attend our Community Builders Sessions to be hosted in locations throughout the Town of Georgetown.
Is Georgetown a panacea for the issues facing our rural communities? No. But it is a start. Powerful things can grow from a single idea; The Georgetown Conference, Rural Redefined is living, vibrant proof of this. And the conversation is just beginning.
By Paul MacNeill
- Paul MacNeill is Publisher of Island Press Limited. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.