Milo Shantz transformed St. Jacobs
(By Michael Hammond, THE RECORD, Wednesday January 7, 2009)
Entrepreneur Milo Shantz known for his community building efforts, died yesterday.
Milo Shantz (left), seen with his brother Ross Shantz in 1977. Milo Shantz first rose to prominence in his early 20s through a turkey-breeding business he and his brother started near Baden.
Entrepreneur Milo Shantz, who transformed a crumbling country village into an international tourist attraction, died early yesterday after a long battle with cancer.
Shantz, 76, will be remembered as a community builder, whether on King Street in St. Jacobs or Daniel Street in Kitchener.
He was best known for his work in kickstarting what would become a multimillion-dollar tourism economy in St. Jacobs in 1975 with the creation of the Stone Crock Restaurant.
But it was Shantz's work with Habitat for Humanity, including its 1993 project to build 10 houses on Daniel Street, that shows the true measure of the man, friends said.
"This was a man who believed in putting his faith into action," said Ken Freeman, executive director of Habitat for Humanity Waterloo Region. "It was not just words."
Shantz, who was born in New Hamburg in 1932, was instrumental in establishing the house-building charity not only locally but also in Canada.
In 1993, he helped attract former U.S. president Jimmy Carter to Kitchener, which led to 10 homes being built in two weeks for families in need.
"You could see it in his eyes," Freeman said of Shantz.
"He had a deep-seated belief that you had to give back to your fellow man."
Shantz often credited his Mennonite parents for instilling in him a strong work ethic and desire to live his faith through actions.
At the time of Shantz's investment in the Stone Crock, St. Jacobs was struggling, and people were suspicious of revitalization schemes.
But six years after the restaurant opened, Shantz established Mercedes Corp., a property management company that developed a number of tourism attractions in the village.
That company now owns the St. Jacobs Farmers Market, Waterloo Farmers Market, St. Jacobs Factory Outlet Mall, Ontario Livestock Exchange and St. Jacobs stockyards as well as seven other rental and retail properties in the village.
It also owns retirement homes in the region and several other towns.
Besides its numerous craft and clothing shops, St. Jacobs boasts a Home Hardware history exhibit, a detailed model train layout of the village, maple syrup and quilt museums and dozens of other attractions.
The development of St. Jacobs into a tourist draw has not been without its detractors, particularly among those who feared it would exploit the region's Old Order Mennonites.
But Kitchener Mayor Carl Zehr, who worked for Shantz's companies for more than a decade beginning in 1969, said Shantz was always careful not to exploit Mennonites.
"He was very deliberate and said it was important that not only did he not want to exploit the Old Order, but that he wanted there to be opportunities for people to explore the faith without it being a circus."
Mercedes Corp. recently invested $250,000 to revamp its Mennonite Story Visitors Centre in the village.
The centre was established in the late 1970s to discourage curious tourists from crowding around Mennonite churches and gatherings, which were once common in the area.
Larry Martin, president of the St. Jacobs Country Inn and a former Mercedes employee, said Shantz won over a number of skeptics who initially opposed the transformation of the village economy.
"I think, today, people appreciate what he's done," he said.
"I think the detractors today are very few. It's sad to lose a visionary."
Regional Chair Ken Seiling put it simply.
"His fingerprints are all over the north end of the region."
From a very early age, Shantz and his brother Ross saw business opportunities where others didn't. Shantz bought and sold hogs at age 13. By 21, he had bought 500 turkeys. He first rose to prominence through a turkey-breeding business that he and Ross started on a family farm near Baden.
The business became Hybrid Turkeys, one of the top three turkey-breeding companies in the world when it was sold in 1981.
In 1977, The Record said Hybrid Turkeys helped Kitchener earn the informal title of Turkey Capital of Canada. The business is still based in Kitchener.
Through the Shantz's MerSynergy Foundation, he donated to a number of charitable causes in the region, including Mennonite Economic Development Associates, where he was chair for 10 years.
Those who worked in Shantz businesses were encouraged to become shareholders. Twenty-five per cent of the Stone Crock, for example, is employee-owned.
Shantz's philanthropy and business achievements earned him an honorary doctorate from Wilfrid Laurier University and the Queen's Golden Jubilee Medal.
Shantz is survived by his wife Laura and his children Sandra, Jenny, Marcus, Margaret and Christine.
Visitation at the Waterloo North Mennonite Church on Benjamin Road will be held today from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. and tomorrow from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. as well as 7 p.m. to 9 p.m.
The funeral will be held at the same church Friday at 2 p.m.
(Photos from THE RECORD, January 7, 2009. Source: The Record file photos.)