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How Canada’s oldest town held a ‘rural renaissance’ to save itself

Annapolis Royal, N.S., is Canada’s oldest town, but it only looks like it hasn’t changed in centuries.

A new documentary shows that in fact the town, which dates to the early 17th century French settlement of Port-Royal, was a rundown “dump” in the 1970s, and how only through a determined effort from locals was its historic beauty restored. 

Jane Nicholson is the founder and CEO of the small investment fund Annapolis Investments in Rural Opportunity, but she became so fascinated by the restoration that she produced a new documentary called Rural Renaissance: How Canada’s Oldest Town Reinvented Itself.

Nicholson’s film, created with local filmmaker Andrew Tolson and researcher Wilfred Allan, documents the work of the Annapolis Royal Development Commission.

“I wanted to show that if everybody comes to the table, great change is possible. That’s what happened here in our little town. That’s what saved it,” Nicholson said. 

how canadas oldest town held a rural renaissance to save itself
King’s Theatre opened in 1921, but was falling apart by the 1970s and home only to Phil’s Pizza. (Rural Renaissance)

A photo exhibit at King’s Theatre shows the before photos, and the blueprints for change. 

“You can see that this streetscape in the late 1970s, there’s not a flower, there’s not a tree, there’s not anything pretty. It’s absolutely grim,” Nicholson said. 

King’s Theatre, which turns 100 this year, had been reduced to a ramshackle pizzeria. The Sinclair Inn looked like one big storm could turn it to rubble.

All across the town paint peeled from buildings and weeds grew through the concrete.

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Jane Nicholson speaks in front of the revived King’s Theatre in Annapolis Royal. (CBC)

Locals came together and formed the Annapolis Royal Development Commission, made up of concerned citizens, town councillors, heritage groups and business associations.

They created a plan to save the town, which included restoring 29 historic facades, completely renovating key buildings and creating new economic engines.

The group established the Boat Haul-Up, used to repair vessels, the Annapolis Royal Historic Gardens, the Farmers and Traders Market and the boardwalk. All of those projects still drive the town’s economic engine more than 40 years later. 

History told in plants

Trish Fry got her first job mowing the lawn at the historic gardens when it opened during her teenage years. Today, she manages the entire botanic gardens. It tells the area’s story in plants. 

“So we have a pine forest, reminiscent of pre-European settlement, we have an Acadian section from about a 1671 time period — including a house with a thatched roof — we have the Governor’s Garden, which is mid-1700s when Annapolis Royal was still the capital of Nova Scotia,” she said.

It also has a Victorian garden and an innovative garden that draws modern greenthumbs. 

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The boardwalk shows off the Annapolis River and remains a popular walking trail. (CBC)

The documentary comes as the town faces new economic challenges, including the planned closure of a local Nova Scotia Power tidal generating station.

Nicholson said the documentary shows they can overcome tough times. 

“Everybody’s afraid to say what the truth really is about why things fail. If you can be honest about why things fail, you can be honest about what you hope they could be, and then you can say: what can we all do and work together? Without the red tape and with honesty, you can achieve a huge amount,” she said.  

Rural Renaissance will hold a sold-out premiere this weekend at the restored King’s Theatre. The theatre will run the documentary again on Oct. 3.  Free tickets are available on the website and in person at the box office. 


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