Association turns defeat into victory – March 2, 2013
There is usually a domino effect when a destination business dies on a main street in rural Nova Scotia.
Foot traffic declines, commuters have fewer reasons to drive into town, cash flows out of the community and other businesses may have a harder time making money and paying staff.
A remarkable civic group is reversing that trend in Lawrencetown, Annapolis County.
After one gas station closed down, Carleton Road Industries Assoc. reopened another one on the same site.
When the local Pharmasave and its Canada Post outlet closed, the association opened a new post office in a donated and renovated old house next to the gas bar.
This week, finishing touches were being put on two small upstairs apartments in the same building. Downstairs, additional retail space will soon be used to showcase tables, chairs and other wood products made at a workshop operated by the same enterprising group.
Carleton Road Industries has become a model for social entrepreneurship, a term that applies to non-profit enterprises that adopt and adapt business practices for social ends.
The association’s goal in operating these businesses is to create employment for adults with mental, intellectual, emotional or physical disabilities.
As well as offering vocational and life-skills training to its clients, Carleton Road Industries employs them within its own enterprises or helps them gain work with local businesses, usually in retail. It also provides transport for clients who live off the main bus route.
Its in-house operations include custom woodworking, making outdoor furniture and planters, cutting and bagging kindling, property maintenance and rolling and delivering sales flyers. Local retailers sell their picnic tables and kindling.
“It’s a really busy outfit,” said executive director Mackenzie Akin, a hands-on manager who is a mechanic by trade and started out with the association as its workshop director.
The number of clients, which is now 46, has almost doubled in two years. Some have come to Carleton Road Industries straight from high school, some will remain as clients until retirement.
When the apartments above the post office are ready, the more independent clients will move in.
Sales are also up across various divisions, including the gas bar.
The XTR Gas & Go is a full-service operation. Akin said that draws in elderly customers, who appreciate not having to pump gas. It also provides a competitive edge because most nearby gas stations are self-serve only.
But margins are thin, so while gas and postage sales cover overheads, the association depends on grants, fundraising and donations to pay clients and 10 staff.
Renovations to the post office building, which was basically rebuilt from the ground up, were supported by a government-funded local program, called Jump Start to Trades, and donations of materials and labour from local businesses.
Making ends meet is difficult, said Akin. But the organization and its clients have learned how to overcome the odds.
Their next challenge is finding more businesses that will hire trained, willing workers in tough economic times.
Rachel Brighton, a freelance journalist and former magazine publisher, writes on industry, ethics, economics and the environment.