An Annapolis County entrepreneur invests in the resource she understands best: her own community.
Seven years ago, Jane Nicholson had $1 million in bonds and a burning desire to make a difference. She could have followed the example of many Canadian philanthropists and donated her money to a registered charity. Instead, she established Annapolis Investments in Rural Opportunity (AIRO) — a private economic development and investment firm that went on to create more than 200 jobs in Annapolis Royal and Annapolis County.
The formula for this success is remarkably simple, and from Nicholson’s perspective, eminently replicable anywhere in rural Canada. As a first step, she hired Adele MacDonald as AIRO’s chief operating officer. Together, they set up the AIRO office in Annapolis Royal’s former railway station — a once-abandoned building that Nicholson had purchased to restore.
Next, they organized dozens of confidential interviews with a broad range of community members, politicians, economists and other experts. The responses from these individuals, captured in a February 2017 report, sparked 14 grassroots business ideas and transformed the local economy.
Over the next six years, AIRO received 164 applications. Of the 90 approved for support, 44 were new businesses starting up, 27 were existing businesses expanding, and 19 were community development projects. Successful applicants received business loans averaging $9,429. To date, almost 90 per cent of these loans have been repaid, with recovered funds used to support new loans and cover AIRO’s operating expenses.
“We were set up to make small, low-interest loans to entrepreneurs with ideas that would eliminate the asset gaps identified in our 2017 report,” says MacDonald. “When we started AIRO in 2016, Nova Scotia’s Community Business Development Corporation (CBDC) did not lend to micro businesses, so people who only needed $5,000 or $10,000 had nowhere to go until we came along.”
Because the Canada Revenue Agency does not allow what Nicholson does to be classified as philanthropy, AIRO was set up as a private company — a designation that allows it to be very nimble. “Nobody can tell us what to do, we don’t have a board of directors, and there’s no advisory group,” explains Nicholson. “It’s just the two of us, plus what we know and what we have learned about the community.”
Despite being the first capital of Nova Scotia and a prosperous player in the age of sail, Annapolis Royal was decidedly down on its luck by the 1970s. Thanks to the efforts of the Annapolis Royal Development Commission, the vision of key individuals, and the concerted efforts of residents, the town reinvented itself with 10 built projects, including the restoration of historic buildings, installation of a scenic boardwalk, and construction of the Historic Gardens.
Nicholson’s personal investment continues that renaissance, and is poised to change the outcomes for the town and surrounding county for the next generation. She is proud that Annapolis Royal now boasts the amenities of a much larger centre, but cautions against forgetting the hard work done by citizens in the 1970s and ’80s. “There are people who have lived here for years who don’t know that the buildings on St. George Street were once almost beyond saving,” she says. “They need to know that Annapolis Royal continues to exist today because others got together 40 years ago to save it.”
AIRO’s lending arm closed in December 2021, at which point it had directly invested $744,209 into businesses and community projects. Now operating as a consultancy focused on helping existing clients, the firm hopes to work with other regions in the province and encourage potential philanthropreneurs to establish their own version of AIRO.
Nicholson measures the impact of her contribution, in the health and well-being of her community — finding the evidence in foundational businesses, such as a bakery, an ice cream parlour, a wine bar, galleries, and other enterprises that make people feel good about where they live. “This isn’t just philanthropy,” she jokes. “It’s enlightened self-interest.”
For more information or to connect with Annapolis Investments in Rural Opportunity (AIRO), visit ruralopportunity.com.