As a voice for western PEI, the West Prince Chamber of Commerce, headquartered in Bloomfield, is a member of the Atlantic Chamber of Commerce, a non-profit organization that fosters networking events and opportunities to develop business relationships and contacts.
The best way to describe the area served by the Chamber, according to CEO Tammy Rix, is as “a community of communities,” which include Alberton, Lennox Island, Miminegash / St. Louis, O’Leary, Tignish, and Tyne Valley, along with another half dozen or so smaller municipalities and rural areas.
The best kind of mix
The population of just over 16,000 is an interesting cultural mix, with people of Mi’kmaq, Acadian, Irish, and Scottish heritage, joined in recent years by several hundred Filipinos who came as temporary workers and are now settling in and buying homes, and, the most recent newcomers, a Ukrainian family who received a warm welcome.
These communities are nestled in an area of approximately 1,100 square kilometers, a portion of which follows the Northumberland Strait coastline facing New Brunswick and continues around the northern tip of the island to extend along the Gulf of St. Lawrence.
The area is away from the tourist hotspots of Charlottetown and Cavendish (of Anne of Green Gables fame), but only 40 minutes from Summerside, the second largest municipality on PEI, and like the rest of the island, offers miles and miles of sandy beaches, a relaxed rural lifestyle, and a surprisingly large number of businesses.
According to Rix, there are approximately 1,000 businesses in the region which range from lobster, oyster, and clam processing plants, which may employ several hundred workers, to businesses in the agriculture, forestry, and tourism sectors; ‘mom and pop’ retail offerings; and a variety of start-ups and service providers.
To date, 240 businesses have registered as Chamber members and together with non-Chamber members have created a truly diversified economy.
Prior to 2017, there had been a Chamber of Commerce in the area, but as Rix tells us, it was run by volunteers, “who did their best to inform local businesses about the importance of Chambers; having a full-time staff person has made all the difference in educating West Prince on what Chambers do. Chambers of Commerce can be champions in education and business and are making a growing movement of Chamber-led initiatives.
A chamber recharged
Then in 2017, the Chamber was rejuvenated with a new board of directors, and Rix was hired as CEO, bringing to the position 30 years of experience in business and with non-profit organizations. “I watched my father as an entrepreneur, and I understand the challenges faced by small businesses. This is where I’ve always wanted to be: in a position where I could help people be their best.”
As she explains, “the main goal of the Chamber at first was to discover what businesses were out there and get more of the business community engaged. I think we’ve done a great job of promoting businesses and getting people to know about all the businesses that are spread across such a wide landscape, but it is still a challenge.”
Still, it’s a worthwhile challenge, she says, because when people discover that a product or service they’ve been driving into Summerside or Charlottetown to access is offered in their own area, they are very pleased and that in turn positively impacts business. “When you visit and support small business you not only keep money in our region, but you encourage community and invest in entrepreneurship. This is what makes West Prince an awesome destination to live and work!”
When the pandemic lockdown came in March 2020, communication with business owners and managers was paramount. “Before that everything was going smoothly and working well, but when everyone was told to go home and wait, I was working around the clock some nights, just to get through all the COVID-related information so I could communicate it accurately to our members.”
Bizy in the Sticks
Whereas once the businesses were simply listed in a tourism guide / directory, Rix and the staff have, since the Chamber’s rejuvenation, been employing a variety of social media platforms, E-Newsletters, and training and skills development to keep everyone informed, including a series of podcasts with the catchy title of “Bizy in the Sticks.”
It’s a project the West Prince Chamber developed in partnership with the Eastern PEI Chamber of Commerce, as part of the Rural PEI Labour Market Development Project, led in West Prince by Kester Nurse, and at the Eastern PEI Chamber by Sandra Hodder.
We listened in on a few of the podcasts, to get a flavour of what is going on in West Prince. First, we heard Ruby Lubigan, recent winner of the Chamber’s Emerging Business Award, being interviewed by Rix.
Originally from the Philippines where she worked in the electronics industry, Lubigan came to PEI in 2011 to work long hours in the seafood processing industry and improve life for herself and her daughter.
Four years ago, she opened her own food store, Sarai Sari, on the main road between Bloomfield and Alberton. She specializes in imported Asian food, a boon to the hardworking Filipino community who are out there solving the island’s labour force shortages, giving business and the island economy a real boost.
It wasn’t long before plenty of other islanders discovered that Sarai Sari meant ‘everything’—and not second-hand saris as they first thought—and that what’s on the shelves in Sarai Sari is very tasty indeed. As her customer base grew, Lubigan began offering seafood in season and specialities such as rolled pork belly. Now she’s set to expand her business with a lunch counter and take-outs.
A helping hand
Lubigan’s Sarai Sari is just one example of what’s possible for an entrepreneur who recognizes a niche market and enlists the aid of the Chamber and other organizations such as CBDC Western PEI.
Located in Alberton, CBDC is an economic development agency designed to assist the start-up of small businesses and the expansion and modernization of existing businesses with financial and technical services, including business counselling to individuals and small business owners and managers.
We also listened to Rix’s interview with Dr. Herb Dickieson, who retired after a 30-year career in family medicine at a clinic in O’Leary, but who has no intention of retiring from community service, which is what led to the Community Impact award he received from the Chamber.
For years he has been a tireless advocate for the region, speaking out on issues many care about, such as the proposed closure of rural post offices, and on the need for universal accessible kindergartens. PEI was the last province in Canada to offer public kindergarten, which it finally did as a result of the task force of which Dickieson was a member.
“Everyone is not in a position to speak out, or else they feel they can’t,” he told Rix, “but because I had the ability and the position, I believe I needed to.”
Most recently, his attention has turned to dealing with the shortage of physicians on the island which he believes can be remedied through a three-pronged approach, which includes accelerated recruitment, increased residency opportunities, and the development of a medical faculty at the University of Prince Edward Island in Charlottetown.
He is now serving on the medical faculty’s steering committee, working to develop it in partnership with Memorial University (St. John’s, Newfoundland), with the first class scheduled for 2024.
Dickieson, although not a businessman, is a Chamber member, and a visionary who realizes the impact community services have on the health of the economy. “If we don’t have enough physicians we lose rural hospitals, and thereby lose population,” he points out.
The corollary to this is that if the population leaves, then businesses will fail, as would a sound education system and rural post office—necessary components to attract and maintain a population that can contribute to a thriving economy.
Shake hands, partner
Western Prince Chamber of Commerce is very much a product of the rural friendliness and helpfulness PEI is known for, a place where neighbours help neighbours and where organizations like CBDC, individuals like Dr. Dickieson, and Chambers of Commerce across the island join forces, believing that when one succeeds, they all succeed.
But those are not the only partnerships. The PEI Partnership for Growth is a private sector-led alliance of 21 founding partners representing business organizations, industry associations and other supporters. In May 2022, the alliance put forward an Economic Action Plan, which is “looking at a bigger future for our island, by building resilience and sustainability in a changing world.”
This partnership’s work is only just beginning, but it bodes well for West Prince that the Chamber is joining forces with this forward-looking potent alliance.
Love Local PEI Campaign is an Island Chambers-led initiative that promotes locally owned and operated businesses and brings awareness to the importance of supporting local. The goal is to mobilize islanders and to increase their support of locally owned and operated businesses. Businesses can sign up for the Love Local, PEI Directory for free!
Another key partnership is with Innovation PEI. Although the organization is based in Charlottetown, it employs a staff of 47 across the province. In 2021 it provided support and guidance to 1,100 small and medium size businesses, offered 34 business-support programs, and recorded that 127 countries around the world had received PEI exports that year.
Mill River is rolling
While the entire island is a welcoming place, there’s one space in West Prince that is especially designed to accommodate both tourists and businesspeople looking for a meeting place, or maybe even a place to relocate their business.
The Mill River Resort, with 81 guest rooms, an 18-hole golf course which was given a 4-star rating by Golf Digest, an indoor pool, water slide, and nature trail, is a drawcard for tourists, weddings, families, and companies looking for a corporate retreat. And should anyone fall in love with the area and want to stay, that’s got to be the best option of all.
Rix told us that twenty-five years ago there were plans to develop the adjacent campground into a residential area. Two houses were built, but that was that. Now, however, things are happening.
Don McDougall, Rix said, has done a phenomenal job expanding the site and creating Residences at Mill River, with 26 executive homes, many of which have already been sold, and more under construction. With a golf course in their backyard and a three-minute walk to the river, these homes are proving very attractive to both retirees and working families looking to relocate from other parts of Canada, in particular Quebec and Ontario.
Also on the property is another development, Shops at Mill River, which will offer professional and retail services. Rix told us that already a law firm, an accounting firm, a physiotherapist, and an insurance company have leased space, but there are still spaces available.
This, like all the other businesses in the area, small, medium, and large, are proof of what can happen as a result of sound leadership, an entrepreneurial spirit, and beneficial partnerships.