Anyone travelling the back roads that crisscross the length and breadth of this vast nation cannot help but be struck by the incredible number of small ghost towns that pepper the countryside, legacies of the days when hotels would spring up one horse and buggy ride apart, or located at an appropriate railway depot location for the railroads then being built, soon to be followed by general stores, banks and the other commercial enterprises that service what was then largely an agrarian society.
Within a couple of hour’s drive, one comes across a larger town that has flourished on the lifeblood of less fortunate communities. Thus the ebb and flow of urban development marches on, creating winners and losers in a survival of the fittest (or luckiest). Small towns have slowly strangled as customers ventured to larger centres where they can find the cheaper products and greater variety that economies of scale allow.
The trend accelerates almost of its own accord, building with an exponential speed, until local customers don’t even consider looking in their backyards for the products and services they need. This trend has been remarked upon by many older residents who can recall the days when movie theatres, grocery stores, hardware stores, shoe stores, pharmacies and a plethora of other goods and services could be found not only in today’s communities like Wiikwemkoong, Mindemoya, M’Chigeeng, Manitowaning, Gore Bay and Little Current, but also in many of those tiny communities that now boast little, if any, commercial activity.
Great kudos must go out to those entrepreneurs who have chosen to buck that trend, chosing to set up shop, literally, in the remaining commercial centres of Manitoulin Island. That includes long time captains of commerce like the Bondi family, who have built an impressive chain of enterprises in communities that span the Island, and relative newcomers to the scene such as the Rozells, who celebrated their first year of business as The Edgewater Pharmacy in downtown Little Current this past weekend, as well as established “new” businesses like the Manitoulin Physio Centre in M’Chigeeng that is celebrating a decade of success or Wiikwemkoong’s Andy’s which grew from the little gas station that could into a linchpin of Island commerce.
The list of those who have had confidence in serving our communities goes on and on.
But now these business people who have revitalized and repurposed our business centres are coming under a new pressure and threat from beyond Manitoulin’s shores. Like the advent of the automobile, the coming of the Internet is threatening brick and mortar, mom and pop, enterprises like nothing that has been seen before, as customers click to order the products they want and wait for the delivery truck to appear at their door.
It is already challenging to be a retail operation in a rural area with a large, nearby city whose businesses can work on tighter margins than smaller volume family businesses. But not all is without hope. The popular Manitoulin Trade Fair has done a great service in building awareness of what is available in the way of products and services close to home and the Eat Local movement is also encouraging people to take a look around them to discover the gems we have within.
We can each do our part by not automatically assuming that a better deal can be had a click or an hour-and-a-half of gas consumption away and by taking a good look at what is on offer through the businesses of our friends and neighbours. It is like so much in life—you either use or risk losing them.
Small local businesses have so very much to offer in the way of expertise and personal service, and quite often on offer for little more than what is on the price tags at the big box stores a gas tank full of traffic hassle away.
Shop local and help our communities thrive.