Blyth delegation hosts 'A Taste of Rural' in Ottawa - May 11, 2017
BY SHAWN LOUGHLIN
A small delegation of Blyth representatives travelled to Ottawa last week with a message of rural revitalization and left a pretty good impression according to many observers.
The group, which included representatives from the Blyth Centre for the Arts, Blyth Cowbell Brewing Company, the Canadian Centre for Rural Creativity (CCRC), the Goderich-to-Guelph (G2G) Rail Trail and Regional Tourism Organization 4 (RTO4), attended a number of meetings with some Canadian decision-makers, but the jewel of the trip was the hospitality event dubbed A Taste of Rural on May 4.
Peter Smith from the CCRC led the charge, saying that he found the trip to be extremely productive in getting Blyth, and everything that’s happening in the community, on the radar of those in Ottawa.
The initiative, he said, very much began with Allan Thompson, who ran in Huron-Bruce for the Liberal Party in the last federal election, but lost to incumbent MP Ben Lobb of the Conservative Party.
Thompson said that what was happening in Blyth has been on his radar for years, even before he had won the local Liberal nomination, and he has been a champion for the town and its ongoing revitalization efforts ever since.
He said it began when Blyth 14/19 hosted Fare on 4 and served dinner to 1,419 people on the closed main street of the village. With that event, Thompson said, he saw the extreme determination and passion behind the project.
Thompson got in touch with those behind Blyth 14/19 and he and his son volunteered at the dinner.
In the years since, renovations were announced for Memorial Hall, home of the Blyth Festival, the CCRC was founded and Cowbell began work on a cutting edge destination craft brewery in the village in 2017.
Thompson, a journalism professor at Carleton University by day, had suggested a trip to Ottawa for representatives of Blyth, and the wheels began to turn late last year.
Smith said that one of the key moments in the process was when what is ongoing in Blyth was identified by RTO4 as important. For a regional tourism organization to identify the work being done in a village of just over 1,000, Smith said was a big step towards gaining attention on a much wider scale.
Thompson began discussing the potential for an Ottawa visit in earnest with Smith and the idea soon expanded to include all of the aspects of Blyth’s resurgence, including the G2G Rail Trail, which provides an active transportation connection between hundreds of thousands in the Kitchener, Guelph and Waterloo areas and smaller Huron County communities like Walton, Blyth and Goderich.
After some discussion and working to further shape how the event would look, the group set up a number of meetings and rented a room on Parliament Hill in which it would eventually host its Blyth-focused reception.
Smith said that the group’s key meeting was with Tobique-Mactaquac MP T.J. Harvey, the newly-elected chair of the Liberal Party’s Rural Caucus.
The Rural Caucus has just recently been established by the Liberals, says Thompson, and includes over 50 MPs from the party who all represent rural ridings all across the country.
Smith said that what is going on in Blyth seems to have found some fans among those in the Rural Caucus – with many wanting to hear more, even delaying flights to their home ridings to attend the evening’s reception. He said that with the Rural Caucus he could see definite partnership possibilities going forward.
Will Amos, Pontiac MP and vice-chair of the Rural Caucus, in fact said he wished the Blyth representatives would come to his riding to implement some of their ideas, Smith said.
At the Taste of Rural event, the group hosted between 100 and 150 people and treated them to beer from Cowbell and cheese from Blyth Farm Cheese while discussing a number of initiatives ongoing in Blyth.
Thompson said that the legacy of the Taste of Rural event will be the connections that were made that evening in Ottawa. Smith agrees, saying that the more people who are aware of what’s going on in Blyth, the more likely it is that federal funding will be brought to the table to help the good work already being done in the village.
Chris Lee, representing the G2G Rail Trail, said he found the event fascinating and that everyone he talked to was genuinely interested and surprised at the work being done in Blyth.
Lee admits that he was skeptical of the event, having been involved with similar efforts in the past, but he felt the Blyth reception was “remarkably successful”.
For his part in the effort, Lee said that many government officials, including several cabinet ministers, MPs and Senators, were interested in both the active transportation and accessibility aspects the trail brought to the table.
Also during the visit to Ottawa, Smith was able to discuss the project with local journalists and speak about Blyth on CBC Radio. They also spent time with Huron-Bruce MP Ben Lobb, who made a point to visit with the group during its time in the nation’s capital.
Thompson said that the connection between what’s going on in Blyth and the Ottawa event is a perfect marriage of what the current government, and specifically the Rural Caucus, is trying to achieve.
The goal, Thompson said, is to redefine “rural” which he often feels is associated with a different way of life that’s a bit behind the times. While rural is definitely a different way of life, he said, many rural Ontario communities are hubs of cutting-edge technology and plenty of creativity and Blyth is a perfect example of that changing narrative.
As for the impact of the visit, Smith, Lee and Thompson all agree that it may not be fully known for months, even years, as the Blyth ideas percolate within those in Ottawa and the Rural Caucus. However, those who made the trip are optimistic.
Smith said that he hopes that what’s going on in Blyth will change some minds about how arts and culture projects have traditionally been funded and the potential to change that model by seeing the economic development possibilities for small, rural communities.
He says that just as there are new and innovative ways to make rural communities relevant and competitive, there will always be new and innovative ways for government to support those projects if decision-makers are willing to open their minds and embrace them.