Sep 07

(Part of: Advantages, Report to McNab Braeside about its Economic Future, Susan J Anglin and Bruce M Firestone. Copyright FA Capital Lands Inc, September, 2013.)

When technology entrepreneur Bruce Lazenby took over OCRI (Ottawa Centre for Research and Innovation, the City of Ottawa’s largest investment in economic development) in September 2011, one of the first things they did was to rename the group to “Invest Ottawa”. Interestingly though, Mr Lazenby’s goal was not to attract investment to Ottawa—it was to attract entrepreneurs. Bruce had seen the futility of spending large amounts of promotional dollars to bring companies like Dell to Ottawa for what turned out to be a cup of coffee. Instead, his goal was to bring entrepreneurs to live and work in the city on the theory that those that made Ottawa their home would not tend to cut and run at the first sign of a downturn.

Coombs is a tiny village (population around 1,327) on Vancouver Island 43.7 kilometres northwest of Nanaimo. It takes around 34 minutes to drive there from Nanaimo first going north on BC Highway 19 before turning west and motoring inland for a few kilometres on the Alberni Highway.

Here is Coombs’ Wikipedia entry—

Coombs is a small community on Vancouver Island in British Columbia, situated on provincial highway 4A approximately 10 km (6.2 mi) west of Parksville. Coombs is home to approximately 1,327 people and is renowned for its Old Country Market (which features a family of goats living on the roof), Butterfly World (which includes a small indoor tropical rainforest), the World Parrot refuge, and the Coombs Bluegrass Festival held every B.C. Day weekend.

What stands out is that there is a marketplace in this village which is one of the top tourist attractions in the entire province sometimes called “Old Country Market” but more often known as “Goats on the Roof”.

Susan Anglin recently spoke with current owner, Larry Geekie, now in his 60’s. They employ 100 to 150 in winter, and 250 in summer, both full and part time. Mr Geekie was born in Coombs and wanted to return there later in life. Coombs is just ½ block long.

They get 5,000 visitors per day in the summer who come to see goats on a roof as much as visit the marketplace below. Their goats go to a farm for six months during the winter. Three of Mr Geekie’s children work with him. They buy directly in India and China.

The marketplace includes—

Fresh produce, Deli, Imported specialty grocery, Bakery and special pastries, Eateries, Italian restaurant, Ice cream shop, Gift shop, Chinese antiques, Wabisabi surf shop, Old country store.

The Goats on the Roof have spurred other development in Coombs including garden wares, clothing and art.

How did such a thing land there? Here’s their history from their website:

In 1973, “What if we started a fruit stand beside the highway?” One year later, “What if we sold hamburgers to travelers en route to the west coast?” Two years after that, “What if we built a market?” A market was indeed built and that’s how this story began. Many questions and answers followed and the market evolved in its own inimitable way.

The original market was created by Kristian Graaten. Kris and his wife, Solveig, who emigrated with their children to Vancouver Island from Norway in the 1950s. Kris, who grew up in the small community of Lillehammer, was inspired to include a sod roof in his design of the market. Many Norwegian homes and farm structures are built directly into the hillside with the sod roof becoming an extension of the hillside. With the help of sons, Svein and Andy, and son-in-law, Larry, Kris unwittingly began to build what would become perhaps the most famous sod-roof building in the world.

And now the question, “What if we put goats on the roof?”

Well, it was the weekend of the Coombs Fall Fair and the grass was getting rather long. Legend has it that, after a few glasses of wine, Larry suggested that they ‘borrow’ some goats to ‘mow’ the grass and perhaps provide some entertainment for passing cars. Needless to say, the goats became permanent tenants of the Coombs market that weekend and have been there for more than thirty years. Each spring, a trip of goats makes their home on the roof, entertaining both locals and visitors from all over the world.

Also referred to as a ‘green roof’, this environmentally friendly method of building provides insulation (retains warmth in colder weather) and promotes evaporation (has a cooling effect in the summer). But most importantly, for us at least, it creates a wonderful habitat for our goats.

So the key to creating by far the largest economic development force in Coombs was first attracting Norwegian entrepreneurs Kristian and Solveig to settle there then bringing back native son Larry Geekie and his children to carry on and further evolve the enterprise into what it is today. This is precisely what Mr Lazenby is talking about for the City of Ottawa and what this report is suggesting for MB.

Now Coombs is no different from any small community—it cannot keep its children or entice them to return unless the community has sustainable economic opportunities for them to exploit.

Notice how the Old Country Market intrudes onto the Alberni Highway in the Google street view above. The definition of the boundary between its parking lot and the main road is vague/poorly defined. Note how pedestrians are claiming part of the roadway for themselves.

McNab Braeside like thousands of other communities must decide what takes precedence in its go-forward strategy—should communities be designed for cars and trucks or for people and businesses.

If MB decides on the former, at least ½ of Goats on the Roof’s structure must be torn down and replaced with—6 metre planting buffer and double loaded parking aisle. And that would be the end of both the charm of Coombs and its primary economic engine.

It is also interesting to reflect on the quality of their website, It is incomplete with several pages saying things like, “Coming Soon” or “Coming soon… Check back for pictures of yester year (sic)”. Perhaps an amateurish website is part of its charm but the lesson here is that authenticity still seems to count for more than slick branding.


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About the Author

Bruce is an entrepreneur/real estate broker/developer/coach/urban guru/keynote speaker/Sens founder/novelist/columnist/peerless husband/dad.