Lifestyles

Refuge from the rat race

Wolfville's new boom-town status

BRIAN BERGMAN July 13 1998
Lifestyles

Refuge from the rat race

Wolfville's new boom-town status

BRIAN BERGMAN July 13 1998

Refuge from the rat race

Lifestyles

Wolfville's new boom-town status

BRIAN BERGMAN

In the heady boom years of the 1980s, one of the places to eat and be seen was Fenton’s, a posh restaurant in downtown Toronto that boasted $900 bottles of wine and a menu that made the city’s restaurant critics swoon. But with the stock market crash of 1987, many of Fenton’s chi-chi clientele lost their appetite for the good life, leaving the restaurant’s owners, Nicholas Pearce and David Barette, to ponder their future in an era of diminished expectations. Drawn by the prospect of clean air, open spaces and cheap land, the pair eventually relocated to Nova Scotia’s verdant Annapolis Valley, where they opened a new establishment, Acton’s Grill & Café, in Wolfville. Under the guidance of Werner Bassen, the chef who put the sizzle into Fenton’s, Acton’s quickly became a magnet for fine-food lovers across the province. The secret ingredient? “People know what is good when they taste it,” said Pearce in a recent interview at the lovingly refurbished farmhouse near Wolfville that he shares with Barette. “And it is easier to get the word around in a rural area like this.”

Acton’s is no Fenton’s—patrons do not feast on caviar and truffles, and the most expensive item on the wine list is a $60 Chablis. But it is an example of how Wolfville, a community of 4,000 located one

hour’s drive north of Halifax, manages to blend small-town charm with a bit of urban panache. Home to Acadia University (the town’s population doubles during the academic year) and the critically acclaimed Atlantic Theatre Festival, Wolfville offers cultural and recreational opportunities that most Canadian towns of a similar size can only dream of. Unlike many rural Maritime communities, fading into obscurity, Wolfville has seen a recent influx of both retirees and younger professionals seeking an alternative to big-city life. Between 1991 and 1996, the town’s population actually increased by 10.3 per cent.

Now, civic boosters are looking for new opportunities, establishing a so-called technology innovation centre aimed at helping knowledgebased businesses blossom. Jointly promoted by the town, regional development agencies and Acadia University, the innovation centre flows in part from the so-called Acadia Advantage program. Since 1996, every first-year student has been issued identical laptop computers and a sophisticated array of software. The computers have become an integral teaching tool and their influence has spread well beyond the campus: an estimated 30 per cent of Wolfville residences are wired to the Internet, roughly double the national average. The innovation centre—scheduled to open within 18 months—is designed to capitalize on that computer literacy by providing young entrepreneurs with the equipment, infrastructure and expertise to develop their business ideas alongside more established high-tech companies. It is also an attempt to stem the current brain drain of Acadia graduates. “This is the most powerful thing we can think of to convince our young people to stay,” says Richard Cote, the Wolfville-based consultant spearheading the planning phase of the project.

In fact, Wolfville aspires to become an essential link on the information highway. The rationale: new technologies are allowing busi-

nesses and entrepreneurs to locate wherever they please, so why not settle in a town that offers a moderate climate, plus easy access to Atlantic Canada’s largest city and the spectacularly rugged coastline of the Bay of Fundy? Cote is something of a walking advertisement for such an option. A former vice-president of Atomic Energy Canada, the Ottawa native moved with his family to Nova Scotia a decade ago with the itch to start his own business. Fie now runs the successful Novatech Consultants Ltd. from his home on Wolfville’s Main Street. ‘What this place offers me is a terrific quality of life along with the ability to work at the things I want to,” he says.

In making the move to Wolfville, Cole is in good company. Architects, theatre administrators and other urban refugees have recently arrived, determined to stake out careers in a small-town setting. Among them is Doug Lutz,

45, who resigned his partnership in a major law firm in Calgary last year, heading eastward in search of the good life. Lutz and his wife, Kathie Manko, 38, who is also a lawyer, were looking for a place where their four-year-old daughter, Rachel, could grow up in a close-knit community.

Says Lutz, who now runs a three-person law practice in Wolfville as well as working two days a week for a civil litigation firm in Halifax: We were looking for a place where, as they used to say on Cheers,

‘everybody knows your name.’ ”

Wolfville fits the bill. It is a community bereft of even such minor urban inconveniences as traffic lights and parking meters, and where the absence of home postal delivery means the Main Street post office continues to be a gathering spot. That suits Atlantic Theatre Festival artistic director Michael Bawtree just fine. “I like being able to meet the mayor on the steps of the post office and find out what’s going on,” says Bawtree, who was raised in rural England and has spent much of his life in such small Canadian theatre centres. “I don’t subscribe to the idea we have all basically become city people. I still think small-town life is something to aspire to.”

Almost everyone in Wolfville cites the 160-year-old Acadia University as a crucial ingredient in the quality of life. With an annual budget of nearly $50 million and more than 500 direct employees, it is also key to Wolfville’s prosperity. That is why the controversy swirling around Acadia president Kelvin Ogilvie this spring was so keenly felt. The Acadia University Faculty Association, describing Ogilvie as autocratic, passed a motion of non-confidence in the president.

The students’ union also called for a comprehensive review of his leadership.

At a meeting on May 9, Acadia’s board of governors declined to deal with either motion—much to the chagrin of some faculty representatives who said they could no longer deal with the president.

Ogilvie has been very tight-lipped publicly about the challenge to his leadership. He does allow, however, that “some very hurtful things were said,” adding that he found them harder to understand given his deep roots in the area. Born in the village of Summerville, 40 km east of Wolfville, and a graduate of Acadia, Ogilvie returned home in 1987 after a distinguished career as a research biochemist at the University of Manitoba and Montreal’s McGill University. While he faces the prospect of some stormy days ahead at Acadia’s helm, Ogilvie can take comfort in his surroundings. From his house overlooking the Bay of Fundy, he now has a view of the waters that his seafaring ancestors sailed over 200 years ago. “It’s an environment that I love to look at, to be part of,” he says. In that, at least, he is far from alone. □