BY GARY MAY
While many of us dream of living the waterfront lifestyle, few are financially independent enough to just stop working and settle down to enjoy the view. Besides, the waterfront living bug is biting at an ever-earlier age these days, and how many 50-year-olds are ready to stop working entirely?
Stephanie and Benoit Amice were still-young — 35 and 36 — parents of a little boy in 2007 when their thirst for adventure drove them to leave Scotland and move to southern Ontario. They quickly fell in love with the charming and bustling waterfront community of Niagara-on-the-Lake.
Stephanie was a Hong Kong-born civil servant and Benoit a Parisian transplant in the hospitality industry. Despite their ages, their life together had taken them on many career adventures before they decided to create a job for themselves in the historic and touristy Ontario town where the Niagara River flows into Lake Ontario.
“My sister had already come to America to open a bed & breakfast in Maine, and I wanted to be a homebody,” explains Stephanie. “If we opened a B&B, we thought it would be a good way to have a house and a business at the same time.”
Things don’t often work out exactly as we plan, however. The Amices learned that a town bylaw in Niagara limited B&Bs to just three rooms. Anything larger would require designation as an inn, and that opened up a whole different set of regulations they weren’t prepared to face.
They made a compromise: Stephanie would stay home and run the Finlay House, while Benoit would use his hospitality expertise to get a job outside the home. He ended up working for one of the local wineries.
The young couple totally made the house over, purchasing Mennonite-built furniture from St. Joseph’s to complement the town’s early 1800s character. Even though the building had been operated as a bed & breakfast by its previous owners, the Amices inherited no bookings and had to begin from scratch. It was a daunting thought, but this couple had never shirked from a challenge.
Soon, guests were beating down the doors ...
Nevertheless, they knew the structure of a successful business was there. They had chosen a great location, a short walk from the quaint downtown and Lake Ontario, as well as all the Shaw Festival venues, in one of Canada’s most popular tourist destinations. Stephanie loved talking to people, Benoit knew the hospitality industry, and since their own home would be separated from the B&B by an attached office, guests could enjoy their privacy.
Soon, guests were beating down their doors and Stephanie says they’re busy even through the winter. This couple chose wisely when they decided to establish their own business. For instance, they bought an existing one rather than starting from scratch. Even though they had no previous bookings, the structure of a business was in place. Experts say for anyone contemplating creating their first business, that’s a good idea.
The Internet is a great place to start for anyone looking to take over an existing business. Small business owners are always looking to move on, to either retire or begin a new enterprise. And many small, economy-priced businesses on the auction block are located in waterfront communities.
For instance, a children’s boutique was on offer in Collingwood recently for $35,000. The price was for the business only; about $60,000 in inventory (clothing, artwork, décor, furniture and giftware) could be purchased separately and the 1,600-square-foot business was located in the town core, not far from Georgian Bay, in leased quarters. The place was offered for sale because the owner plans to retire.
A browse of the Internet revealed other small businesses for the economy-minded, including a houseboat business in Temagami, in Northern Ontario, on offer for $85,000, and a chip stand, complete with one-bedroom house, overlooking the Ottawa River in the town of Mattawa for $149,500.
More and more people are thinking of leaving the big cities in favour of a more pleasant life in the many communities that border Ontario’s waterways. The numbers would likely increase if more people could find a way to support themselves, but often those high-paying jobs that make living in our big cities so addictive are simply not available in smaller locations. One option, then, is to create your own career.
One advantage that comes with the maturing of age is that people with years in the workforce bring a wealth of experience and skills with them, and often simply only lack the nerve to take the leap. Experts say that “conservative gene” that comes with age and experience is often a good thing — it helps keep people from making rash decisions.
Things to think about as you create your new career ...
If you’re thinking of embarking on an enterprise that would allow you to move to your waterfront community of choice, here are a few questions you might want to ask yourself first:
• Is your “enterprise” based more on your hobbies — things you love to do — than on solid business principles? For instance, you might always have dreamed of running a small-town bookstore or pet shop, or refinishing antiques. Better do your research first. Is your location going to provide you with enough clients, and will you be able to work quickly enough to earn a living?
• How much do you need to earn? You can live less expensively in a smaller community, but can you realistically expect your enterprise to generate enough cash to meet your needs? The Amices decided they didn’t want to run a large inn, but a nice little three-bedroom B&B instead, even though returns would be less. They knew that wouldn’t generate enough income to keep their family going, so Benoit went out and got a salaried job.
• The key to a successful business — just as it is with any real estate venture — is location, location, location. If your enterprise relies on walk-in traffic, are you in a sufficiently busy spot? If you’re selling hardware, are you going to run into heavy competition from a big-box competitor? And if you need to earn a living year-round, is your location going to provide you with adequate winter traffic? Conversely, if you plan to spend the winter in warmer climes, will your business afford you the opportunity to close up shop, or hand it over to someone while you’re away?
• Business analysts say the No. 1 cause of new business failures is poor management of resources. Make sure you have the required experience, and consider government-assisted courses to pick up, or hone your skills.
• Do you have access to sufficient capital? Will you have a safety cushion?
• Take stock of your lifestyle expectations and ask yourself: “Am I ready to work as hard as I need to, to make this a success?” New enterprises require plenty of nurturing. They also require you to network like crazy. Ask yourself, then answer truthfully: “Do I have what it takes to go out and meet the people who can help me succeed?” That includes not just customers, but mentors, people who can offer you sound advice and support.
• What type of sellable service do you have to offer? Will people pay well enough for it, in order for you to prosper? If you are a tradesman, chances are you’ve got a readily marketable skill. More and more people are searching for someone to do renovations, repairs and other work on their homes, for instance.
• Can you produce, or market, a sellable product? If so, you might be able to set up an Internet-based home business. For example, some people are subsidizing their world travels by buying handicrafts they bring home and sell via the Internet.
Stephanie and Benoit Amice have been operating Finlay House for nearly four years, but their wanderlust has kicked in again and now they’ve decided it’s time to move on. They have put the B&B up for sale for $749,000, although they say they’re in no rush to sell. And whoever buys the place, Stephanie says she’d be happy to stay around awhile and show them the ropes.
'You can live and work where people go on holiday'
Up in Haileybury on the shores of Lake Temiskaming, Brigitte Wunn is also contemplating a change of scenery. She’s operated the Haileybury Beach Motel for the past eight years and has it on the market for $558,000. Once she sells, Wunn plans to move fulltime to the nearby farm where she raises Friesian horses.
“This is an ideal business opportunity for a family, or a couple looking to get away from the fast pace of life in southern Ontario,” she says. The motel offers 13 rooms, all with a view of Lake Temiskaming, plus a three-bedroom owner’s apartment, and a breakfast room for 16.
“You can live and work where people go on holiday,” says the German-born Wunn. “The wilderness, the clean air and water, and the amazing friendly people.”
The fishing is fabulous, and in winter the lake freezes over and affords great snowmobiling across to Quebec. In summer, there’s golf, swimming and plenty of nature trails. Wildlife abounds, including moose and bears.
There are plenty of other opportunities to take over a business in the hospitality industry, including a $725,000, 70-seat restaurant in the Lanark Highlands lakeside village of Calabogie; a 90-seat bar and grill on Orillia’s Lake Simcoe, complete with a 120-seat patio, for $875,000; and a lodge on Marble Lake near the Eastern Ontario village of Cloyne for $549,000.
Other resorts recently on the market included one on Georgian Bay near Pointe au Baril for $995,000; one in Haliburton near Minden for $948,500; and one on Rice Lake north of Cobourg for $895,000.
Or, you could own your own marina in Muskoka, for $1.3 million. Annual revenues are $1 million and there’s $200,000 in cash flow.
For those who’d love to tell friends they own a golf course, there was one offered in Tobermory for $1 million, including the course and the clubhouse. If you’re thinking big, you could have a house, a barn, all assets and rezoning information for a multiple dwelling development on the site for another $500,000.
Whatever the path you choose to live out the waterfront lifestyle, it’s best to be honest with yourself about how much money you’ll need and whether you can earn enough to meet those needs. But most of all, “you have to have a sense of adventure,” advises Stephanie Amice. And in the hospitality industry, at least “you have to like people and to like helping to make them happy.”
“But when all else fails,” she adds, “just have a glass of wine.”
After all, isn’t that what waterfront living is all about?
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MyNewWaterfrontHome.com — February 2011