Rural regions constantly grapple with questions of simple survival: what does each area offer in terms of jobs and economic viability? There’s no single answer, and even innovative efforts will have supporters and detractors.
In any case, here’s one such story: what to do with a historic building, a landmark in Merrickville, Ontario?
Merrickville was founded in 1794. The Sam Jakes Inn was built in 1861 (with additions and renovations over the years).
Merrickville has a history that included mills and manufacturing. The current population is slightly under 3,000. Today it’s best-known as a tourist destination. A dynamic range of artists run studios and shops there. Boaters lock through on the Rideau Canal or tie up for some pleasant shore time. Merrickville attracts many Ottawa day-trippers and hearty cyclists as a good day-trip, offering a ramble of shopping or meals amid heritage buildings once there.
According to the Ottawa Citizen:
Sam Jakes Inn, which opened in 1991, was one of the most popular spots in Eastern Ontario for weddings, conferences, and weekend getaways. Overlooking the Rideau Canal, it was renowned for regional cuisine and featured 33 guest rooms with period furnishings and a spa.
The stone structure was built in 1861 as the residence of Sam Jakes, a teacher, postmaster and department store owner who served as Merrickville’s second reeve.
To some extent, those were boom times, though, with a lot more money splashing around. In the same Citizen article, then-owner Gary Clarke said government belt-tightening slashed budgets for off-site meetings, leading to a precipitous drop off in bookings. By 2009, the Inn was struggling for survival.
(Full disclosure, I had a very pleasant interview with Gary Clarke myself in 2007, the topic was the stronger Canadian dollar. He moved the discussion to border crossing challenges. Clarke was also very excited about the anticipated designation of the Rideau Canal as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the potential that held for the region.)
According to the Citizen article, the Inn was purchased last summer by a partnership between Susan and Doug Kendall, owners of Fulford Academy in Brockville, and the BTH Education Group in Mississauga.
The Brockville Recorder reports Fulford Academy celebrated its 10th anniversary last July. The Citizen states the Academy’s Sam Jakes expansion will open in February.
What’s the school offer and who are the targeted students? As the Citizen reports:
The new Fulford Preparatory College will enrol up to 60 young men and women, aged 17 to 20, from Latin America, Asia, Europe, Africa, and the Far East. Tuition and boarding will cost about $45,000 a year.
“People from overseas are very interested in learning in English,” says Tom Steel, head of the parent school, Fulford Academy in Brockville. “Canada is viewed as a very safe place to be.”
Is this a good thing for Merrickville? Can similar enterprises be replicated in other quite, pretty English-speaking communities? (Or French-speaking, for that matter.)
It remains to be seen how this particular effort works out. But tourism alone is a shaky foundation for economic stability. The best scenario for many communities usually includes a dynamic mix of diverse – yet complimentary – mini-economic engines.