The small towns that refuse to die: Schemes to woo new blood about more than just staying alive
Jay Patel decided about four years ago he wanted to buy a motel. He was living in Brampton, Ont., and working as a machine operator in a warehouse, a job he had done in a few different places since immigrating to Canada from India in 2000. The work afforded Patel and his wife, Sudha, enough money to buy a home and raise a child, but it failed to provide the 50-something-year-old with what he really wanted: his own business and the sense, sink or swim, that he was in charge of his fate.
This past August, Patel made his move. He found a place, the aptly named Moose Motel in Smooth Rock Falls, Ont., a former paper mill town about 800 kilometres north of Brampton, and bought it from its previous owner, Naynesh Patel (no relation).
Naynesh Patel was likewise a dreamer from India and had owned the Moose for a year before being beset with health challenges hastening the motel’s sale, though he vows to return to the town upon his recovery to open a sandwich shop, because, as he said on a late November afternoon, his wife and three young kids love the place and “the community has done everything possible to make them feel welcome.”
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The two Patel families’ willingness to take a chance on a town that was left for dead in 2006 after forestry giant Tembec Inc. shuttered the local mill, are exactly the kind of adventurous souls Smooth Rock Falls hoped to attract when it rebranded itself as the “near north, near perfect” Canadian town a year ago.
“We used to be a reactive town council,” said Michel Arseneault, the three-term mayor and a third-generation town resident. “Now we are proactive. We finally feel like we are in control of our destiny.”
A place some thought didn’t have a future is selling lots next to the golf course for $500 a pop, offering business owners and newcomers major tax breaks to move in, guaranteeing loans on new residential and non-residential construction projects and declaring to the world, or so it is hoped, that Smooth Rock Falls, population 1,400, isn’t teetering on the brink, but on its way back.
However admirable, a small town’s fight for survival obscures a much larger 21st century truth: the overwhelming majority of us live and work in cities, and so saving a Smooth Rock Falls, or any of the hundreds of other seen-better-days places that dot the map, arguably only makes fiscal sense for the people stuck living there.
But there is another side to that argument and a belief, among some, that our rural communities aren’t just relics from the past, but islands of potential growth.
“We are faced with this dilemma in Canada, we don’t have a command economy, we are not like Russia — where we can close down a city — so we let these communities wither, and sometimes they die and sometimes they fight back,” said Ken Coates, Canada Research Chair in Regional Innovation at the University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon. “They refuse to give up, and they push and they push, and they come up with ideas — and the (discounted) housing one is really interesting.”
Coates, a small town kid from the Yukon at heart, believes that depending on location and access to amenities such as health care, small towns can be a significant part of the future.
We finally feel like we are in control of our destinyMichel Arseneault, Smooth Rock Falls mayor
One avenue of growth is the greying population. A newly retired baby boomer with a mortgage-free house, love of the outdoors, aversion to traffic and belief in getting to know the neighbours can swap that home for one in Smooth Rock Falls that costs $70,000, give or take.
“People can move to these places and live like royalty,” Coates said.
Small towns can also work for seniors on a fixed-income crunch who might need affordable care. And rather than being places young people flee in favour of major urban centres, they can work as access points to the global economy.
A generation ago, if you were a company manufacturing, say, shoes, the idea was to gain as much market share as possible by selling gazillions of shoes. Now, the internet makes the world a metaphorical shoe store and serves as the ultimate marketing tool: the independent cobbler, milliner, tailor, professional writer, you-name-it-craftsperson with a custom product to sell can live somewhere affordable and still have access to their consumers/audience.
“I see a huge opportunity for craft-based industries in these towns,” Coates said, adding that a lot of former one-industry towns are located near a major power source.
For example, Smooth Rock Falls is home to a hydroelectric generating station. Cheap electricity, in the electricity-intensive digitized economy, can be directed toward housing a warehouse full of internet servers.
“We don’t need the migrations of hundreds of thousands of people to these towns,” Coates said. “Thirty people can turn a community from being at risk to being viable.”
On a macro-scale, rural communities matter economically, despite what city folk might think.
A 2018 Federation of Canadian Municipalities report — Rural challenges, national opportunity — counted more than four million Canadians working in rural areas/small towns, and they contribute 27 per cent of the national GDP.
The fastest-growing sector in rural economies is health care, while their biggest need is an injection of youth. Boomers, and their bank accounts, are great, but a town needs young people to be truly sustainable.
“It’s not so much the money, it’s the injection of energy into a place,” said Ken Stannix, mayor of McAdam, N.B., which, like Smooth Rock Falls, has put itself up for sale.
Thirty people can turn a community from being at risk to being viableKen Coates, Canada Research Chair in Regional Innovation at the University of Saskatchewan
The town, population 1,250, has been gripped by a land rush in recent days, triggered by the village council’s announcement that it was selling 16 residential building lots — for a buck a piece — on a first-come, first-serve basis.
Stannix, a retired Canadian air force veteran, spent the first week of December returning some of the 500-plus phone calls the village office has received from Vancouver, Toronto, Ottawa, parts in between and parts as far away as India.
“I am not really sure why we chose a dollar,” he said, but that decision has certainly attracted attention.
For instance, “Grace and Wayne,” prospective buyers from Winnipeg, appeared in McAdam on a Monday morning. The mayor gave them a personal tour of the village with the historic railway station near the Maine/New Brunswick border, chatting with them as they went. The couple, in their late 50s, expressed interest in opening a business and of starting a new chapter in their lives.
McAdam, by all accounts, has its attractions for those who want to escape the hurly-burly of a big city. Likewise, Smooth Rock Falls has always been a gateway to some of the most pristine wilderness in northern Ontario, but that wasn’t enough when the Tembec mill shut down 12 years ago.
“We all thought we had jobs for life and that our kids would, too,” said Mayor Arseneault, who was a millwright and 53 years old when the mill closed. “We ended up in a situation where all our young people had to leave to find work elsewhere. It devastated our local schools, our sports facilities — no kids, less hockey teams — our home prices bottomed out. It was terrible.”
The people that stayed were still good people. There were no traffic jams, houses were cheap and wait times at the local hospital negligible. In the year since the town’s rebranding effort was launched, 24 families, representing a mix of ages, have bought in, including the Patels from Brampton. Six commercial-zoned properties have also been sold by the town, though the mayor can’t say, just yet, what the new owners are planning to build.
Back at the Moose Motel, Jay Patel was tending to six guests a few weeks before Christmas. He and his wife have hired a local person to help with the cleaning, and the couple has big plans for the spring to continue the work Naynesh Patel started: painting, renovating and revitalizing the 30-room place on the Trans-Canada Highway with the moose statue out front.
“We are happy here,” Patel said. “We are not worried about the winter. We had winter in Brampton, too.”
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