Features | From Pivot Magazine

A Newfoundland CPA tries to save his hometown

Colin Corcoran has spent the past decade helping propel St. Mary’s Bay into the 21st century

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CPA Colin Corcoran in his hometown St. Mary’s Bay, NewfoundlandColin Corcoran (Photograph by Ned Pratt)

The earliest memory I have is sitting behind my parents’ house in Riverhead, St. Mary’s Bay, Newfoundland, mending my father’s fishing nets. This was around the time the cod fishery collapsed in ’92; my father would get up at 3 a.m., go fishing with his father, come home and sleep for an hour, then get up and work at the local store. Sometimes he’d wake up and have to ask my mother what job he was going to. After the collapse, he had a smorgasbord of jobs to support the family—at one he was trained as a microcomputer technologist on software that was already outdated by the time the course was done. Both my parents really taught me the value of hard work.

I had no intention of becoming an accountant; it was on a whim I took a business course at Memorial University and found accounting came naturally. Though my career has been in St. John’s out of necessity, home has always been in St. Mary’s Bay. And like most small Newfoundland communities, it’s facing some really hard questions about the future, and a lot of that has to do with connectivity: there’s no cell tower, and internet access is extremely slow. I’ve been lucky, as an accountant, to be part of trying to solve those issues—especially during a couple of real crises.

The first was in 2011-12. I was splitting my time between Riverhead, where I was on town council, and St. John’s, where I was a policy analyst with the province, and studying to become a professional accountant. 

That year things went downhill very fast: the mayor and town clerk resigned, the deputy mayor passed away and the town was regularly in a state of emergency due to an aging water system. There were two schools of thought: one, repopulate the town council and sort out the finances; or two, dissolve the town and let the province take over. I fought for survival.

So we held a town hall, and the community chose the first option. I became the interim mayor, and helped build a new budget, made payment plans with vendors and reallocated spending. It was a wild time; I remember driving straight from River­head to St. John’s to take my accounting exam, unshowered and in dirty clothes, since we were in a water shortage. I was in such a rush to get back I almost forgot to turn the exam in.

Then in 2015, my wife, Nanci, and I bought the pub in St. Mary’s. That was when the reality of our situation hit me anew. I could see the demographic decline we faced, reflected in my own customers. I remember a fellow who came to the bar almost religiously, every Saturday. One night I drove him home, and found out the next morning he’d passed in the night. That became a theme—customers, friends, were dying, and it felt like the town was slowly dying with them. We had to do something. So how do you rejuvenate a community like this? We’d fixed the water problem—we needed a whole new pump system, and to fix and replace a lot of lines—but now we had a 21st-century infrastructure challenge. And just as water is necessary for life, connectivity is a prerequisite for economic development. More than 100,000 people drive what’s called the Irish Loop every year, from St. John’s around the coast of the Avalon Peninsula, and most drive right through the group of communities that make up St. Mary’s Bay—they can’t get service, make a call, check Google Maps, anything.

“Customers and friends were dying, and it felt like the town was drying with them. We had to do something.”

I’d seen something called the Smart Cities Challenge, a competition by Infrastructure Canada in which winning communities get money for technology initiatives. So I registered a non-profit called St. Mary’s Bay (or SMB) Connect Inc. to apply. 

Long story short, we didn’t get the funding, but the province had just put out a call for funds for cell coverage in under-served areas. I’d previously approached Bell Aliant about building a cell tower. They said we’d need a clear business case—pretty tough with only 1,000 people in all the communities. But, I thought, ‘Okay, I’m a CPA. That’s my job.’

Ultimately, we made a deal, with the province contributing 25 per cent and most of the rest coming from Bell Aliant. But the communities needed to kick in 13 per cent. So we transformed SMB Connect into a social enterprise, with each community paying a service fee over a 10-year span to cover it—none could possibly pay up front. We submitted a joint proposal to the province, and in 2020 we’ll be building a $1.03-million cellular system in St. Mary’s Bay.

We’ve also been trying to address internet deficiencies. Again, it’s cost-prohibitive for big telecoms to deliver high-speed service here, but SMB Connect is working with business students at Memorial to look at developing a micro-ISP, taking the one high-speed line we have now and using it to deliver high-speed throughout the communities.

I still work in St. John’s full-time, as director of finance and administration for a technology incubator called Genesis. It helps support technology start-ups from early stages right to investment, and it’s been growing astronomically. I’m the only CPA at Genesis, too, so I can help clients on all kinds of financial and taxation issues, and I’m available to founders and C-suites—sometimes even jumping into clients’ companies as interim CEO, to get them through a tough spot. 

I believe it’s important work for this province. But so is what I do in St. Mary’s Bay.

Every time I drive back from St. John’s—even though I’ve driven the route hundreds of times—there’s just something about coming around the rolling green hills, dodging moose and potholes and getting the first glimpse of the lights of Riverhead in the twilight. It’s home.”

—As told to Matthew Halliday