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My reflections on the conference: 300 roads lead from Georgetown

Try this scenario on for size: a small town of fewer than 700 residents is facing decline.Employment is hard to come by with a shutdown at the shipyard, a nascent tourism sector and uncertain markets for farm products. A steady western exodus of job-seeking youth and other entrepreneurs has accelerated the aging of its population. Retirees and other newcomers face the challenges of fitting in to an established social fabric, or finding a way to make a living.Georgetown, Prince Edward Island, could be any small town in Atlantic Canada. However, with a hopeful approach this place has transformed itself, avoiding impending decline and taking charge of a more positive future. Its response? Culture.If there was a theme that tied together the inaugural Georgetown Conference (October 4 to 6) to redefine and revitalize rural, it was culture. Get to know yours. Map its assets. Draw upon collaborations. Celebrate its expression, and share the wealth.

Not surprisingly the small Georgetown School occupies a central place in the village, helping to keep young families nearby and attracting newcomers who view the town as offering full services to all ages. Politicians and residents alike fought hard to keep it open during recent consolidation attempts and succeeded in securing it as an important asset.

Another key asset is the King’s Playhouse. Nestled between two churches, it sits across from the town hall amidst an expansive memorial garden. Refreshed and renewed in recent years so that it could expand its theatre, music and dance offerings, the building is an analogy for the development approach evident in the town.

Understand what makes your place specific and unique. Vision a future, find a way to build it and they will come. It was at the Playhouse, the cultural centre of Georgetown, that our conference took place. But just as it takes a village to raise a child, it took a village to truly make the Georgetown. This community of hope also showed itself to be an outstanding community of hosts.

From the community supper to the rafts of volunteers running the venues, from the welcoming mayor to the generous local deep-sea fishing operator, the community came together to host a remarkable weekend. As rural people do, they invited us in for a bite or two and a cup of tea, and opened up their town for us to learn from, share our stories, and take away something inspiring.

Each day had stellar speakers and unexpected collisions of ideas that sparked some real gems.

On Saturday Shaun Majumder, of “22 Minutes” fame, delivered as expected. Known as an actor and comic, he is the founding force behind The Gathering. He is transforming the isolated fishing community he grew up in through social enterprise centered on food, music and upscale camping (something he calls glamping!). Mr. Majumder has pride in place, ideas and connections to share, and a willingness to work to do it.

The unexpected gem for me was an impromptu address by Georgetowner Ray Brow, the originator for Prince Edward Island’s Festival of Small Halls. It is a kickstarter for the tourism season held each June across the province. Small Halls brings Island musicians and storytellers to more than 40 communities readying spaces for the impending flow of visitors, and celebrating Island artistic culture all the while.

Friday saw John Bragg, CEO of Oxford Frozen Foods, make a passionate address about social enterprise and the power of giving back to the small communities. His story involves towns such as Collingwood and Oxford, places that have sustained his business for five decades.

He spoke proudly of the community school and water treatment facility that his company helped to provide, in a unique “P3” arrangement that had nothing to do with private ownership of facilities, and everything to do with the major regional employer recognizing a mutual need for residents and its own operations. Mr. Bragg and others “found a way” and “were not afraid to do business in rural places.”

For me, Maine border resident Sheila Jans made a big impact with her display of knowing one’s place and finding that one essential thing that makes it special to set a course for renewal. Her work in the Saint John River Valley to share the French history of the landscape was truly inspiring, and may have set a course for my vacation plans next year!

As the event drew to a close, each delegate was challenged to pledge the local action they would spark or stoke back home. In this way the work of the Georgetown delegation has just begun. Our 300 commitments to action will be carried out in the many places the participants call home.

Actions will be carried out from the British Columbia Kootenay region getting set to host a similar conference next year, to the Newfoundland northwest coast where an abandoned fish plant is being transformed to a new economic hub.

Reflecting the spirit of conference keynote visionary Zita Cobb of Fogo Island, “people are finding a way” and acting on ideas as “catalysts and accelerators for change in their home place.”

Indeed the real work and heavy lifting of Georgetown is now upon us. In the words of youth delegate Nick Macgregor of Maclellans Brook, Nova Scotia, “It’s time to put on our workboots, grab our shovels and dig the garden of prosperity for our communities.”