Creating a Connection to the Present
Colin Corcoran, a 2011 Commerce (co-op) graduate from Memorial University is the founder of SMB Connect, a social enterprise organized as a non-profit. Colin is from St. Mary’s Bay and is passionate about the socio-economic issues facing rural areas of the province. SMB Connect grew out of realization that building strategic infrastructure to enhance connectivity is essential to spur further regional economic development initiatives. By 2020, SMB Connect aims to have a cell tower in the area as to assist the region’s growth. Colin believes that through innovative social enterprises, we can foster economic development in rural Newfoundland and Labrador.
“In 2016, I began to research the issue of connectivity … I realized a social enterprise model is the only model that could make this work. This is because it would have to be an amenity that would bring revenue in, but in a very innovative way and provide a service to the community.” – Colin Corcoran
Q1. What have you been working on in St. Mary's Bay, and why have you decided to approach it through social enterprise?
I purchased what is now known as the Celtic Knot Pub and Restaurant in St. Mary's in 2014. After finishing our first summer and talking with thousands of tourists, the issue around connectivity in the area became clear. Once tourists reach the St. Mary's Bay area, they are completely disconnected. There is no cell phone signal, no internet to allow them to connect to navigating systems, no way for them to look up places to eat or other attractions, no way to connect to their banking information, and no way to connect to social media. Therefore, the only way we were receiving these tourists were if they did their research beforehand or if we were referred to from another local business.
In 2016, I began to research the issue of connectivity, and I reached out to a member of Bell Aliant who confirmed I could move forward with a project if I could present a clear business case. As a CPA (Charted Professional Accountant) by trade, I began to piece together what I needed to present a strong case and get the infrastructure in the region. At that point, I realized a social enterprise model is the only model that could make this work. This is because it would have to be an amenity that would bring revenue in, but in a very innovative way and provide a service to the community. SMB Connect would then serve almost like a middle contractor between Telecom, the municipalities, and the province at large.
Q2. Can you share a little about how this started and what motivated you?
If you look at the four municipalities of St. Mary’s Bay (Riverhead, St. Mary's, Gaskiers-Point la Hay, St. Vincent's-St. Stephens-Peter's River), you will see that these actually represent about 13 unique communities. When studying this region, it becomes clear that we are dealing with economically depressed areas. One of the best industries that can support them is the tourism industry, as we are all located on the Irish Loop. However, we cannot begin to move the tourism industry forward until we have basic modern infrastructure - connectivity. The region was facing such a decline that it allowed me to realize we really need to act now on this issue in order to ensure the survival of St. Mary’s Bay, so this really motivated and created the push throughout 2016 to the present to bring connectivity to the area.
Q3. What does 'success' look like for SMB Connect?
Success would look like the ability to have a connection in St. Mary's Bay. It would mean more than just having the infrastructure in place, but to also realize additional positive economic returns from any project SMB Connect (or others) work on in the future. These are short term goals for us, but really speaks to long term survival and the sustainability of the local economy.
Q4. What has been the most challenging aspect of this initiative so far, and how have you overcome this challenge?
The most challenging aspect so far has been the lack of resources. These challenges were extremely difficult, but the way to solve them is to address them at the core. When the challenge was influence public policy, we started a campaign, when the challenge was resources, we became very creative around our approach. For example, when Infrastructure Canada's Smart Cities Challenge was announced in 2017, we took it as an opportunitiy to apply for $10M to produce economic outcomes with connectivity infrastructure. When you looked at the list of the 200 applicant cities, there was Toronto and Mount Pearl, and if you scroll to the very bottom of the list, you see the four communities of St. Mary’s Bay. This demonstrates that we tried to be creative in finding unique ways to secure financial support for the project.
Financing the project was another challenge within itself; the only way it would work for us was through a social enterprise model. SMB Connect is contracted by the communities of the region to do work on their behalf with a ten-year payback period. For an indiviudal municipality of their size, in order to pay their contribution towards a cellphone tower, you are really looking at a full years’ worth of tax revenue. SMB Connect found success structuring as a contract service with the municipalities, by receiving a grant from the province, and the partnership with Bell Aliant.
Q5. What has been the most rewarding aspect?
One rewarding aspect will happen in 2020 when the cellphone system is complete - when we finally tweet about the whales from St. Vincent's Beach. However, the most rewarding aspects has been working on this for the better part of three years and seeing the types of discussions communities were having around the topic of cellphone coverage. This opportunity was bringing people together around a common issue/challenge, and it allows for more discussion to occur, but this discussion was around the idea of "if we can do this, what else can we do?" I was really impressed with the communities and proud of the level of commitment. I can say with the utmost confidence that if it were not for the communities believing and activiely participating, SMB Connect would not have been successful.
Q6. What kind of support have you received through your connection with the Centre for Social Enterprise?
It has been a fantastic working relationship with the Centre for Social Enterprise. I can point to three types of support that we received through the Centre. The first support being the network. To be able to tap into a network of individuals, groups, and organizations from across the province was very helpful. The Centre for Social Enterprise would also regularly connect us with people working on similar ideas, which was incredibly valuable. Secondly, we took advantage of two initiatives for students offered by the Centre. One supported a student working on a research project, which allowed us to identify additional development opportunities for the future of the group. The second project was a group of students, who were working on a defined issue through coursework, and in this case, it was internet connectivity, and looking at what it would take to bring better internet to the St. Mary’s Bay area. The third type of support we received from the Centre for Social Enterprise was exposure. For example, this conversation is an excellent example of exposure. From this, I have been able to have discussions with mayors of nearby/similar communities and others. It is from the exposure that really helped to add legitimacy to the organization, and part of that was driven by the networking through the Centre. These three supports have been invaluable.
Q7. If you could make one change that would benefit social enterprises in development, what would it be?
I would definitely have some sort of seed fund in the province of Newfoundland and Labrador for social enterprise. This seed fund would help to ensure actual tangible results. What would be beneficial for developing social enterprise would be the guarantee if someone was investing in your social enterprise there is an understood accoutnability mechanism.
The formalization of a seed fund would help to add clarity to what is the definition of a social enterprise. There are many subsets of social enterprise and, from my view, there are many for-profit entities that can be categorized as such. With differing legal and tax structures, with both for-profit and non-profit being labeled social enterprises, we need a way to sort who fits the true description. Adding that accountability on outcomes, not just intentions, will force a clearer defintion to emerge. I think that is something that would aid in the refinement of what the sector truly is.
[After the date of this interview, the province of Newfoundland and Labrador has announced a Social Enterprise Research Fund]