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Lunenburg By The Sea

A working seaport and a historic downtown core are among Lunenburg’s greatest assets.

For more than two centuries, life in Lunenburg, N.S., revolved around the fishing industry. Old salts mended nets on the wharf, wives paced the shore awaiting their husband’s return, and young men followed in their fathers’ wake and went down to the sea in ships.

These days, a building that once rang with the shouts of seamen may well have been converted into an elegant restaurant, where the loudest thing you’ll hear is the clink of silverware. Because even though Lunenburg is still very much a working seaport on Nova Scotia’s south shore, it now also attracts thousands of tourists per year–people whose only acquaintance with fish may have been forged in a grocery store. “The face of the town is totally different than it was 10 years ago,” says Donald G. Wilson, owner of the Topmast Motel and president of the South Shore Tourism Association.

This isn’t the first time Lunenburgers have re-invented themselves and their community which is situated on Lunenburg Bay, roughly 90 kilometres southwest of Halifax. In 1753, the British founded Lunenburg as their first colonial outpost in Nova Scotia beyond Halifax. Determined to counter the prevailing Catholic character of the area, they enticed 1,453 Protestant peasants–mainly from Switzerland, Germany and France –to Lunenburg with grants of farmland.

When the settlers arrived, however, they discovered that the land was poorly suited to farming. Undaunted, they decided to make the most of the one resource Lunenburg had in abundance: The sea. The fact they knew little about fishing or shipbuilding didn’t perturb them in the least.

And so within a few generations, Lunenburg became famous for the quality of its schooners, which fishermen sailed to the fish-rich Grand Banks off Newfoundland and the Western Bank off Sable Island. The queen of the schooner era was the famous Bluenose, launched at Lunenburg in 1921. Captained by Angus Walters, the ship was defeated only once, and won the International Fisherman’s Trophy three years running in the early 1920s.

The shipbuilding skill that went into the Bluenose helped see the town through the early years of the Great Depression, when most businesses ground to a halt. Shipwrights realized that speedy ships could be very useful in one booming enterprise–the smuggling of liquor to the parched United States, deep in the throes of Prohibition. The demand for shipbuilding skills rose again during World War II.

In the postwar years, the town prospered for decades on the strength of the National Sea Products plant, one of the largest fish processing plants in North America. But beginning in the late 1980s, things started going awry for Lunenburg. Fish stocks started drying up. The local population dropped by six per cent between 1986 and 1991, and National Sea Products almost ran aground.

Henry Demone remembers that era well. His father was a Lunenburg fisherman who became a National Sea Products vice-president in charge of the fleet. The younger Demone joined the company in 1977 and became the company’s president 12 years later. He took over a firm that was $240 million in debt. “Even before the fish stocks declined (in the early 1990s), the company had a lot of problems,” he says candidly.

National Sea Products needed to cut costs. In 1994, Demone started moving the company’s headquarters from pricey office space in Halifax to empty real estate at the Lunenburg plant. He also decided the firm needed to move beyond its traditional business of processing locally caught fish. Today, the company –now known as High Liner Foods Inc.–has two main operations in Lunenburg.

One part of the plant processes about 20 million pounds of local groundfish and scallops per year–just 25 per cent of the 80 million pounds it often handled annually in the old days. The other part of the plant focuses on what Demone–speaking in 21st century business parlance–calls “value-added” activities. Workers in that plant take semi-processed fish shipped from all over the world and dress it up by grilling it, dipping it in batter or adding a sauce, then popping it into a High Liner package. That operation has been so successful that High Liner recently spent $3 million to expand it.

The company also produces much more than fish products. Sales of its Italian Village brand of pasta products, for instance, are growing by 20 per cent annually in the United States. “We have a long tradition in fishing, and (it’s) still very much part of our culture,” says Demone. “But when the local raw materials that we very much depended on disappeared, we really needed to reinvent the company. A lot of business people use that word a lot, but in our case, it’s really true.”

The re-invention appears to have worked. The company has shown a strong profit every year but one since 1993. “Today, we feel very, very confident about our future,” says Demone.

That confidence can only mean good things for Lunenburg, which sustained a direct hit when the firm sold off most of its fleet during the lean years. At present, 800 of the company’s 1,400 employees work in Lunenburg. And even though the community has a year-round population of just 2,600, it isn’t difficult to find new employees willing to cash in their big city chips to live the small-town life, Demone says. “Anybody who has reached their 30s and started a family is more than happy to move here,” he explains. “It’s a very nice place to raise a family. Everything’s very affordable. And you generally have a high quality of life.”

Hotelier Wilson agrees. He bought the Topmast Motel in 1986, after spending years as a stressed-out corporate executive in southern Ontario. In Lunenburg, he says, it’s common to see pedestrians stop to chat with friends in cars stopped at an intersection, while drivers wait patiently behind them. “The people are very laid back and quiet here.”

Some residents fear that the relaxed lifestyle is under threat precisely because it appeals to so many people from all over the world–“come from aways,” to use a popular East Coast expression.

Communities across Nova Scotia are grappling with the conundrums that arise when lots of newcomers buy holiday or retirement homes in the area. On the one hand, these new arrivals often renovate their properties, creating work for carpenters, plumbers and others. Some start businesses, creating more jobs.

On the other hand, the weak Canadian dollar makes properties seem relatively cheap to Americans, Germans and other non-Canadians. In August 2001, for instance, a buyer could pick up a turn-of-the-century, three-bedroom home in central Lunenburg for $115,000–a steal to anyone used to the prices of vacation properties on Martha’s Vineyard or at other choice locations in the Gulf of Maine.

As a result, sellers can charge more than they might if they were selling only to locals. Prices rise, and suddenly people who have grown up in a community find that many houses are priced out of their range. “That is an issue. I don’t say it’s the most pressing issue we have, but it is certainly one that is on people’s minds,” says Laurence Mawhinney, Lunenburg’s mayor for the last 22 years. “For the first 200 years of the town’s existence, Lunenburg homes were largely passed on from one family member to the next. And in the last 25 years, that has changed dramatically.”

At the urging of Lunenburg and other coastal towns, the province of Nova Scotia has launched the Task Force on Non-Resident Land Ownership. Among the options it may consider are higher property taxes for certain buyers.

Preliminary statistics from the task force show about one in 20 Lunenburg County properties are owned by “non-residents”, which could include anyone from a third-generation Lunenburger temporarily posted abroad to a German retiree who has purchased a summer house. More than half of these properties belong to Canadians. The next biggest proportion–about one-third–are owned by Americans.

Mawhinney is pleased the task force is looking into foreign land ownership, but he senses it will be years before the province decides what, if anything, to do about the complex issue.

In his mind, a more important issue for Lunenburg has just been resolved. After six years of hard lobbying, the town has just received federal and provincial funding for a new $5.2-million wastewater treatment plant. Soon, the town will no longer dump its wastewater into the harbour. “We’ve always thought a healthy harbour will stimulate an even healthier economy,” says Mawhinney.

The harbour has always been the foundation of Lunenburg’s prosperity. And even in these days of upscale shops and inns, Lunenburgers believe it is their town’s status as a working fishing port that makes it stand out among the pretty coastal communities lining Nova Scotia’s south shore. “The fact that it is an authentic seaport is very, very significant, I think, from a tourism point of view,” says Lynne Perry, executive director of the South Shore Tourism Association based in Mahone Bay. “It doesn’t say, ‘Come to Lunenburg because we’ve created something that was.’ What it does say is, ‘Come to Lunenburg because this is what it is.”

As well as fishing, Lunenburg’s authenticity is closely tied to its streetscape. Old Town still adheres closely to the grid laid down by colonial planners in the 1750s, and more than half of the buildings downtown date back to the 19th century. Some Lunenburg homes have a widow’s walk on the roof, a feature found in many seaports along the East Coast. Many others also sport a peculiarly Lunenburg feature called the Lunenburg bump. This is a second-storey windowed dormer. When combined with the town’s picturesque location and its brightly painted homes –known as Painted Ladies–these factors give Lunenburg a unique charm.

Not surprisingly, it’s a charm Hollywood has discovered. Moviemakers have descended on the town to shoot films like Dolores Claiborne and Simon Birch.

There are two reasons why Lunenburg retained its historic architecture when many other places bulldozed theirs in the name of progress, says the town’s mayor. First, the town didn’t succumb to the “urban renewal” mania that swept North America in the 1960s. And second, the locals were just too practical and frugal to knock down perfectly good buildings. “It was not their nature to tear something down if it still had useful service to give,” Mawhinney explains.

Tourism director Perry says the town’s public elementary school, the Lunenburg Academy, is a case in point. A Victorian confection high on a hill, it might have been demolished in another town. But residents took the money that it would have cost to build a new school and renovated the old building. Now, third- and fourth-generation Lunenburgers can learn about computers in the same rooms where their grandparents once added up sums on slates.

Lunenburgers have also carefully guarded their churches. Today, the town is home to Canada’s oldest Presbyterian and Lutheran churches, and the country’s second-oldest Anglican church. All three date from the mid-1700s. Even disused industrial properties have been preserved. A collection of bright red former warehouses along the waterfront is now home to the Fisheries Museum of the Atlantic, a popular attraction launched in 1967 as a centennial project.

In 1992, the federal government recognized Lunenburg’s unique historical character by designating the Old Town a National Historic District. Three years later, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, UNESCO, added Lunenburg to its World Heritage List. The town is one of only two urban areas in Canada or the U.S. to be so honoured. Quebec City is the other. “We are in pretty heady company,” says Mawhinney, pointing out that Vatican City and Timbuktu are some of the other sites with the cherished designation. “It has certainly heightened the awareness of the world community to the significance of Lunenburg.”

That world attention may have helped save the town when things got rough in the 1990s. But as important as tourism is to Lunenburg, locals insist the town will always be a fishing town. “I think it’s wonderful to have tourism. But I also think that in Canada, it’s not enough to have tourism as the mainstay of your economy, because it’s far too seasonal,” says High Liner’s Demone. “But it’s a very nice addition to the other economic mainstays that are here.”

The town is working hard to make sure tourism becomes a permanent addition. It recently opened a new visitors centre and has erected 19 interpretive panels around town so visitors can learn about Lunenburg’s history on self-guided walking tours. Tourists and locals enjoy a wide range of fairs, shows and other events, including a well-regarded summer folk festival in its second decade.

Lunenburg Branch of The Royal Canadian Legion makes an effort to cater to visitors and is a member of the tourism association. In addition to its regular work on behalf of veterans and ex-service personnel, the branch promotes its bingos and New Year’s Day levees.

With its friendly people, illustrious maritime heritage and its colourful buildings, it seems likely that Lunenburg will continue to be one of the most popular places to visit on the East Coast.


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