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Back in 2005, well before she would bring the Fogo Island Inn to her hometown in Newfoundland, Zita Cobb was staying in nearby Stag Harbour. There was no Internet, but her New York Times subscription went a long way, as it was passed along to neighbour after neighbour. Soon, the Sunday edition reached Amos, who was captivated by the inside front page advertisement for designer purses. “Can you explain to me why I can’t get 49 cents for a pound of wild codfish and people are paying $5,000 for a handbag? Do we have to turn fish into a positional good?” Cobb recalls Amos asking. “That’s exactly what we have to do,” Cobb answered.

What Amos the fisherman was essentially asking was, Why is a fish just something you eat while a purse is a status symbol worth so much more? And while it’s a reaction to a condition that shouldn’t exist — an upside-down global economy where the price of goods is disconnected from the people and places whence they come — Amos’s question was translated into the ethos of the Shorefast foundation and every endeavour under its umbrella, from the establishment of the Fogo Island Inn and the revival of the local fishery to the rebirth of its quilting heritage.

Redefining value as intrinsic to relationships — among people in a community and between the community and the place that sustains it — is the basis of yet another Shorefast invention: the Economic Nutrition Label. It serves as both a practical device (letting people who stay at the inn or purchase any of its goods know what they’re paying for) and as a microcosm of how the foundation operates. When she and Cobb came up with the idea, Shorefast’s CFO, Diane Hodgins, began with a similarly incisive question: “How do we make it obvious at the moment of purchase where the money goes?”

Zita Cobb and Shorefast's Economic Nutrition Label
A breakdown of the costs of a nightly stay at the Fogo Island Inn is represented in this Economic Nutrition Label.

“Most people are seduced by the idea that economic development is something that the government or big business does,” says Cobb. “But how do we build an economy that’s ours? A functioning community economy makes life in a place possible.” The inn, she says, has done that. “The fishery is the most important thing. Together, the fishing co-op and the inn are the island’s two main employers. The co-op drives our understanding of our relationship with the sea; the inn drives our understanding of how we belong to the world.”

When it opened in 2013, its stilt-supported form by Todd Saunders elevating the salt-box vernacular of the tiny Newfoundland community, the story that emerged around the Fogo Island Inn felt primarily like one about heroic architecture: a Bilbao-effect narrative about a community putting its face on the map of culture-based tourism. But as it celebrates its 10th anniversary, its overarching meaning is about circular design: the intentional consideration of a whole ecosystem when it comes to the regeneration of a place. As is now legend, Cobb returned to the island after making a tidy fortune in fibre optics. She wanted to invest in the place her family was forced to leave after industrialized fishing had virtually depleted the oceans, leaving community-based fishers like her father unable to feed their families or make a living.

Then there was the moratorium on fishing altogether. “How would you feel if you woke up one morning and everything that you know is no longer relevant? Suddenly all that knowledge that’s lived and felt and embodied is no good for anything.”

That embodied knowledge is where Cobb began, and it’s where, a decade later, the inn is a resounding success for locals. “People from around the world come to us. They stay at the inn, but they are hosted by the island. It’s cast us into a bunch of relationships. For Fogo Islanders, our understanding of ourselves has shifted. Our belief in the future…I don’t want to say it was restored — that would imply it was lost, which it wasn’t — but it was certainly injured.”

The rebuilding of a prosperous future happens on many levels. Take the area’s quilting heritage. Along with local-made furniture, the inn employed islanders to produce hundreds of quilts for its 29 rooms. While these heirloom pieces were still being passed from generation to generation, Mickey Mouse patterns and polyester blends had made their way into the fabric swatches. “They had fallen out of relationship with the quilts from the past. That relationship was broken by the arrival of consumer culture. So we said, ‘Let’s talk to the older women.’ ” Vintage quilts were hauled out of cupboards, their patterns vivid and random. “And we thought, ‘Holy Jesus, what have we lost?’ ” says Cobb.

So began this renewed relationship with the quilters of the past: The inn revived six to eight heritage patterns and created a new market for them in the wider world. Cobb says that there are now at least a dozen quiltmakers with access to retail outlets on the island, and dozens more producing them.

Zita Cobb and Shorefast's philanthropy model
Modelled after a quilt, the Shorefast way of doing things shows how surplus from businesses provides for its charitable programs.

If quilting and fishing are assets specific to Fogo Island (Fogo Island Fish now ships, to select cities across Canada, 10-pound orders of wild snow crab and 14-pound “punt boxes” of cod, shrimp and crab for $450 and $300, respectively — real-value prices that Amos might approve of), Shorefast’s ongoing community economies project helps other places recognize their own assets and resources.

The foundation has partnered with four places to strengthen their economies: South Vancouver Island in BC and the Ontario locales of Hamilton, London and Prince Edward County. It’s an initiative that Cobb envisions growing into a broader program for the country. “We’re creating a network that contains good and best practices around building strong community economies. Because until we address the hollowing out of the community pillar, nothing can be achieved.” If Fogo Island’s circular approach becomes the benchmark, other small communities around the world will learn big lessons about the small details that make them unique, continuing a legacy a decade in the making.

On the 10th Anniversary of the Fogo Island Inn, Zita Cobb Is Still Building Community

The Shorefast founder’s focus on resiliency – economic, social and ecological – epitomizes circular design thinking.

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