Multi-million dollar resort aims to resurrect and preserve Fogo Island

Jordan Chittley
Zita Cobb returned to Fogo Island to establish the Shorefast Foundation and the Fogo Island Inn.

Zita Cobb left Fogo Island when she was just 16, but there was no taking the Fogo Island out of her.

"The place has never left me," says Cobb, a slender woman in her mid-fifties with short hair and a calm but sharply intelligent voice. "I feel I have been given a gift of place. And that gift of place has formed character and gives a huge amount of security and clarity about life and death."

After more than three decades of living away, she returned to the tiny island 110 km north of Gander a multi-millionaire with the goal of giving back to her dying community.

Cobb initially set up a scholarship for kids on the island in 2002, but that only served to help people leave instead of encouraging them to stay. She went back to rethink her idea.

Then Cobb and her youngest brother came up with the Shorefast Foundation, tasked with reviving Fogo Island's economy by turning it into a cultural destination.

"We are genetically disposed to hospitality," says Cobb. "I think it's a logical extension of life here."

The foundation has four main parts: a program where artists come from around the world to work, a program of revitalizing old buildings and boats, a loan program for people with innovative ideas and a shortage of financial backing, and the Fogo Island Inn, a high-end, 29-room hotel where the cheapest room in the summer goes for about $850 per night and includes four meals at one of the top-rated restaurants in Canada.

What Cobb provides her guests is far different from the Fogo Island she grew up in. She was raised in a home without electricity or running water.

"I'm 55 years old, but I was really born in another century. We didn't get electricity here until 1971-72 and I never had running water in my house. It wasn't necessary," she says. "It was the most wonderful place in the world to grow up, we have everything and it’s the safest place in the world."

Called Newfoundland's largest offshore island, Fogo Island is a place where fishermen trawl the same grounds their ancestors have for the past 400 years. Those fishermen have cod blood ingrained so deeply into their palms that they can't get the stains out no matter how hard they try. It’s a place where families work non-stop during the fishing season and then just try to scrape by the rest of the year.

Fishing stages dot the shorelines of each of the 11 harbours, and behind them are tiny one or two-bedroom homes. The architecture is simple; Jim Lewis of the New York Times described the houses as "what you’d get if you asked a 6-year-old to draw a house." Small evergreen trees cover most of the island, but large swaths are bare tundra, and in those parts there isn't much escaping the cold and blistery North Atlantic wind. Because of the incredible beauty and friendly people, it’s a place most people have a hard time leaving.

Fogo Island was initially put on the map through a National Film Board of Canada program that resulted in 27 films about life there in 1967. It was a participatory film project to illustrate the social concerns of various communities within Canada.

Around the time the films were produced, large commercial vessels began trawling the bottom sea for cod with giant nets instead of lines. Some fishermen on the Island diversified their catch, while many others in the community were forced onto welfare. Cobb's father was too old for the new style of fishing, and in 1975, Cobb's father packed up his family left.

"He put this huge nail, a really big spike in the gate of the fence. And we said ‘How are we going to get in when we come back?' Cobb says, holding back tears. “He said ‘we're not coming back.'

“It was particularly difficult for me, it was really bad for my dad. I think my dad felt that 400 years of lived experience was coming to an end. I think my dad felt we managed to hang on for all this time and he let go.

"He said 'I never gave up on the fishery, the fishery gave up on me.'"

I'm quite sure that the fact I ended up with more money than I needed was a direct result of this place and what this place gave me. I have recouped it, it's here.
— Zita Cobb

Cobb moved to Ottawa for university while her parents and younger brother moved to Toronto. Cobb's family wasn't the only one to leave when the fishing dried up. At its peak, Fogo Island had 6,000 residents – today the population is fewer than 2,300.

Cobb went on to an impressive career in the tech industry, and by the age of 43, she was ready for a break. She retired in 2001 as one of the richest women in Canada and she spent four years sailing around the world, but like all Newfoundlanders, she says she knows which way the compass points.

Cobb invested $40 million of her own money in the foundation and the inn. To date, the project has cost $60 million with $15 million coming from the two levels of government and the other $5 million from private donations. The inn, which opened in May, was set up to fund the foundation, which basically works as a charity. The inn is community-owned and all the money goes back to the community. This means she will never recover her $40 million investment.

"I'm quite sure that the fact I ended up with more money than I needed was a direct result of this place and what this place gave me," she says. "I have recouped it, it's here. We didn't spend it on Gucci purses, but hopefully we've created something that will give back and give back and give back."

And it has already begun giving back. People on the Island have renewed outlook for their future, which is something money can't buy.

"You see hope for the first time in a while," says Sandra Cull, who works at the inn. Her husband built some of the inn’s furniture, which was all made locally. She says the work gave him a sense of pride and satisfaction that she hasn't seen in a while because he knows his work can compete with the best.

Fisherman Leo Burke has lived most of his life on Fogo Island and has similar thoughts.

"I think it's a good thing that she (Cobb) did that. She employed a lot of people," he says, while cutting into some of the 240 pounds of cod he hauled in that morning. "(The Inn) put Fogo on the map anyway."

Burke is the only one cutting cod on the shores of a harbour that would have been packed a few decades ago. He says there are now only six or seven people in his community of Tilting who still fish.

"It's changed immensely since I was a boy,” says lifelong resident Ron Dwyer, a retired high school teacher who has written three books about fishing and life in outport communities. “You look around the harbour and you don't see kids anymore. Kids would be jumping off the stage head, lots of boats in the harbor. You look around and see houses, but you don't see kids."

He says decades ago, people worked through the fishing season and they subsisted the rest of the year. Now people need to make money all year round, and the inn and Shorefast Foundation have offered jobs throughout the year.

"We don't know how it'll change the island, but we do know people come from all over the world,” Dwyer says. “They leave us their culture and probably take home part of our culture. Zita brings the world to our door. How it plays out with employment we don't know, but it's a very attractive place to work."

The issues of a town that is growing again fall, for now, on the shoulders of outgoing mayor Gerard Foley. He is the first mayor of the towns of Fogo, which amalgamated just over two years ago. He says in the past people would move away to go to university and then move where the jobs were, often to Alberta. But, he says, "there is a change and that is encouraging for us as a town."

It is a change of revitalization and a diversification of the economy. Because of the tourism, there are spinoff benefits for entrepreneurs. The change is evident when you board the ferry from the mainland, which requires passengers arrive at least an hour early to make sure they get on. Foley is now working with the provincial government to get a second ferry.

"I see there is opportunity for younger families to move back," he says. "(I'm) very optimistic that Fogo Island has a bright future."

Cobb is reluctant to say she is the reason for the change in mood, but says she likes to think there is more hope.

"When I was in my teenage years here it was really terrible, people couldn't see what's next. (Now) there is a whole lot more hope.

“I feel a real degree of urgency to make sure we don't lose what I know from that time before because things have accelerated so much. Once these doors close you won't open them again. If not me, then who?"

(Photos courtesy Jordan Chittley/Yahoo Canada News)