WRITTEN BY JANET DAVIES.
Caroline Reiss, Cameron Main and Nick Alles became friends at Trent University and dreamed of doing something interesting together after graduation – something less 9-to-5. A lot of students have such a dream but these guys are making it real, right now, in Prince Edward County. They are co-owners of Compass Rose Suites where they offer high-end holiday accommodation on 100 acres of woods and meadows. They have made their own homes in the outbuildings and turned the main house into stylish B&B suites, or – when requested – a whole house rental that commands a premium price. It’s working for them, they’re busy, and the income will provide the means to develop even more joint ventures on their County land.
How did three young people launch such a venture? Years after graduation, when an inheritance came to one of them, they reached out to each other again, to talk about how they could work together to turn a sad thing, the death of a parent, into a good and lasting thing. Something exciting that would sustain them into the future. They had lots of ideas, including starting a brewery, they had the means to buy a property, they just had to choose where to do it.
CHOOSING THE COUNTY
“We bought a map of Ontario and just started looking,“ says Cam. “We’d all done day trips to Sandbanks when we were students in Peterborough, so we knew The County was a beautiful place. But we researched and evaluated a lot of places. We were aware of the whole FAB region because of the way they’re marketing it, so we looked at a wide area. But when we looked at Prince Edward County from a strictly business perspective, it just had so much going for it. So many things are happening here, but it remains really country.” They all knew they wanted to be out of the city. “We considered places closer to Toronto, but everything felt too urban. It turns out it’s not as easy as you think to get away from the city!”
Caroline had gone to school in Halifax and was drawn to the East Coast, but that was a whole different adventure and not as viable. “I spent a lot of time at a family friends’ cottage in Waupoos.” she says. “So The County was always on my radar.” The County, they told us, feels like it has a really good balance. “I won’t say between country and city,” says Cam. “Because it’s not city. But there is a lot of activity here, a lot of culture. It’s lively, but you can still live quietly, go run in a field, grow your own vegetables.”
So they looked at properties in The County. They looked for months and months. They had a business plan and a development budget, but plans kept changing depending on what they saw – if it was expensive waterfront or something that needed months of renovation. “We were getting frustrated and then this property came up. It was not what we had in mind and it was a little out of our price range,” says Nick. “A little!” laughs Caroline. “But we said, what the heck we’ll take a look, and of course it was amazing,” says Cam. “It was perfect without doing much to it. We just had to furnish it and,” he laughs, “luckily our style is minimalist. We knew it would sell itself, that people would absolutely love it.”
They closed the deal in late June and created two suites to get started. They recall feeling terrified. They had no day jobs, they were putting their all into the project. They hoped to open by late July and get some business in. On July 5 a friend called asking if there was any way they could accommodate guests. “We were on our way back from dinner at the County Canteen,” says Cam. “We looked at each other and said can we do this? Yes we can! We’re open!” They hit the ground running and they have had high occupancy from day one. “We were working 24/7. We had no time for ourselves. Because we were not doing a two night minimum we were changing rooms every night, doing breakfasts, it’s a lot of work.”
Their two suites accommodate four people each and a third will be renovated this Spring. “We rent the whole house, too, for 8 to 12 people depending how cozy they want to be,” says Nick. “That’s been popular. We get a lot of professional people in their mid-thirties who get together with family or friends. They’re mostly from Toronto, Ottawa, Quebec, but also from New York state. They find us through word on mouth, or on expedia.com and our own website.
On their 100 acres they have 25 acres of mixed hardwood forest and 25 acres of working farmland. “It’s not the greatest soil, which is a shame because we’d love to do more farming, but it’s good for hay and some buckwheat. We have a big vegetable garden that keeps us busy. The previous owner was a landscape architect and we have more than 100 varietals of plants, mostly native and drought tolerant. There’s masses of wild roses and lavender.” Where the farmland has been left fallow they are generating meadows. “We discovered we have a lot of pollinators,” laughs Caroline. “There are bee boxes on site and we didn’t know who they belonged to. Then we met Bay and Gavin at Honey Pie Hives when we dropped in to invite them to our open house. They discovered we’re the new owners and we discovered they’re the beekeepers. It’s amazing how inter-connected everything is here.”
The friends have diverse skills that are helpful in their new, somewhat unexpected, lives in hospitality. Caroline’s undergrad was in Science, followed by a teaching degree and later a Culinary degree in Ireland, where she and Cam spent some time. “We both worked in the food service industry, which is good experience, what with making all these breakfasts!” Nick has a degree in Environmental Science and so some experience in sustainable agriculture and land management. Cam studied geography and geology and says, “To manage a property of this size, and plan for future development, it’s good to understand how things like water and drainage works. Between all of us, we’ve got a lot of different skills. Over the last ten years I’ve gained experience in general contracting, property management and the food service industry, cooking – and IT! Nick and I both did a lot of IT at Trent.”
DOING BUSINESS IN THE COUNTY
“We have had a lot of help from people here, right from the start. Every level of government has been supportive,” says Cam. “We couldn’t have done all this without help from the municipal offices, from people like Todd Davis and Neil Carbone and James Barr.” Nick agrees. “The planning department guys were surprised that we’d done our homework and that we already knew so much about zoning and regulations.” When asked what advice he would give to others thinking of building a business in Prince Edward County he doesn’t hesitate. “Do your research. Not just in The County but anywhere, Toronto, Ottawa. You have to know the local zoning and bylaws.” He laughs, “Actually Cam knows every rock formation in The County, too, but that’s optional!”
One thing that surprised them was how readily business owners in The County support each other. “We have to give a shout out to Angelines and The Hubb who sent a ton of people our way, and so did many other people we met. In the county there’s no such thing as competition between businesses. People told us that, and we heard it said in the stories on Build a New Life, and it’s true! Like the owners of The June who thought Alex Fida would be stiff competition until he visited and offered help and advice! It’s different here. People want to build up The County together. The more things the area can sustain, the better for everybody.”
We have to agree. There is a common thread in these stories we share of collaboration, goodwill and the desire to partner with others. Younger people in particular seem to share a similar vision and have no doubts about working with others. Caroline laughs, “Oh you should hear what people like lawyers say about that! Don’t do it. Don’t start a business with friends. Don’t invest money with other people. But for us, we couldn’t have done this separately. Together we are so more than just the sum of our parts.”
Compass Rose Suites is proving to be a solid foundation on which to build other dreams the three friends share. “There is a lot of potential in this property and we’re excited to develop it more. We want to make it work for us and we want to share it with the community. It could be a great event space, and in our short time here we’ve seen there is a growing demand for that in The County. We held an open house to meet as many people as we could and show off what we’ve got here. We can turn this place into something very cool, a foundation for what we want to do with our lives. It’s a platform that we can build on. We’re lucky we work together so well.”
They are open year round and are eager to create more winter events. The huge and elegant greenhouse that opens up in summer to catch cross breezes can also be used in winter. “It retains the heat of the sun, so it’s a beautiful spot when it’s snowy, too,” says Caroline. “It’s our favourite place.” They have been talking to many other local businesses who are interested in doing more winter activities, and they plan to offer cross country skiing next year. “We’re still a bit scrambled to do it this year,” says Nick. “But next year for sure. We’ve had guests go out snowshoeing. We have such a lot of land. How great would it be to make a skating trail around the property? Hot chocolate, some entertainment, maybe some vendors – so much potential.”
Their 1,300 square foot barn will be perfect for weddings, they plan to cut more walking trails through those 100 acres, they are keen to work with others on events and pop-up dinners. They’re looking into offering glamping as another option for accommodations. They’re going to be busy for years to come. “That’s why we came here, to make things happen, to collaborate and try new things. We’d love to do stuff with the cycling community in The County and we’re talking to the Brake Room in Belleville.”
LIVING IN MILFORD
They love living close to Milford, the little village they feel sure is ready to take off. “You’ve got to love jumping off the bridge in summer! Someone has bought the old general store so that will be regenerated, and there’s the Milford Bistro and Jackson Falls Inn just down the road. We want to get involved in projects in Milford when we’re more settled. I know people have mixed feelings about new people coming in. I know gentrification, as they call it, has its up and downsides. But we are here to settle down. We want to raise kids here. We’ve met a lot of awesome people here and it feels like a lot of younger people like us are moving out of the city.”
ADVICE TO OTHERS
“Well, financially speaking investing in The County is smart. You get a lot more for your money. But you have to know what you’re getting into. Like I said, do your homework and know what you can and can’t do. It’s rural here, very rural. In summer you work your butt off so you might not get the chance to see people. In winter everybody kind of hunkers down and you might not get to see a lot of people! If you’re okay with that – then definitely come! There is a lot of support. Reach out to people, talk to as many people as you can.
We have found a lot of likeminded people. It’s inspiring when you go to one of those creative get togethers and see what other people are doing. There are young people coming here and we’ve met some awesome older people. I think some of the older generation get a kick out of passing on their knowledge to young people or people trying new things. We took a chance and it’s working for us.”
For startups or businesses looking to expand or re-locate to The County, you can fill out this Business Inquiry Questionnaire, and the Community Development Department will respond in 48 hours.