Michel Arseneault’s third term as mayor of Smooth Rock Falls may be his most important one yet.
Small communities like his don’t usually make national headlines. But in 2006, Smooth Rock Falls, 100 kilometres north of Timmins, did. That’s because the Tembec pulp mill — then its biggest employer — shuttered, leaving 229 people out of work. Over the next decade, the population dropped from 1,473 to 1,330, according to the 2016 census, reflecting a larger trend in the north, which has been hard hit by industry closures and has an aging population.
But over the past 14 months, Smooth Rock Falls has been receiving widespread media attention again — this time for a much different reason. In October 2017, the town announced an ambitious campaign to attract new people and businesses by providing generous incentives, such as tax breaks and heavily discounted land; parcels with a value of $5,000, for example, can be had for as little as $500, provided that you construct a building on the lot within two years.
The land offer has sparked worldwide interest: Arsenault said the town has gotten calls from prospective buyers as far afield as Russia and Australia.
According to Luc Denault, the town’s chief administrative officer, 24 families hailing from British Columbia and elsewhere in Ontario have moved to town (into existing homes), and another family has returned. Those roughly 50 new people represent a 3.8 per cent population increase. He said that the area housing market is also a draw: the average cost of a house in Smooth Rock Falls is $68,000.
“That’s a very reasonable price,” said Denault. “You can raise a family here or retire here with an active lifestyle.”
So what’s it like to pull up stakes and head north? TVO.org spoke to three people who became new residents of Smooth Rock Falls in 2018.
Courtney Marshall; her husband, Brian; and their six-year-old daughter relocated to Smooth Rock Falls from Grey County, two hours northwest of Toronto, in July. She said the town’s marketing campaign caught her attention — and so did its affordability.
According to the Canadian Real Estate Association, the average selling price of a home in the Bruce–Grey–Owen Sound area is almost $350,000.
“I don’t believe your home should be your life,” Marshall said. “You should have a life within your home.”
She explained that the couple paid much less for their house in the north than they would have in Grey County, where they were renting (although she declined to disclose the price of their new place). Since moving, the 40-year-old and her husband have merged their home- and cottage-care businesses.
Marshall said her family is enjoying the slower pace of life in northern Ontario.
“We are keeping steady. We’re very pleased,” she said. “So far, so good. People want to get work done, and the community is open for business.”
“I love this town. People are really nice here.” So said Patrick Roberts, a 61-year-old retired factory worker who moved 1,100 kilometres from Windsor to Smooth Rock Falls last June.
He quickly made an impression on his new neighbours, successfully running for town council, which consists of four councillors and a mayor. Moving up north had always been on his bucket list, he said. He looked for property in Cochrane and Kapuskasing but couldn’t find anything that met his needs: he wanted a fixer-upper priced below $50,000, and he found exactly that in Smooth Rock Falls.
Roberts said that what drew him to the community wasn’t so much the incentives as it was the cost of living and the lifestyle.
“I like to fish and hunt,” he said. “I also get to go into town on my snowmobile, get my mail. I couldn’t do that in Windsor.”
Moving from Hamilton to Smooth Rock Falls is something Ken Williams, 61, wishes he’d done a lot sooner. He relocated last Easter, and in December, the retired teacher, who is also a pastor, became the chaplain of a local Legion hall.
“I run all the military services, the religious parts of it,” said Williams. “I open and close prayer.”
He didn’t come alone. His wife, Angie, and her parents came, too. Williams sold both his house in Hamilton and his in-laws’ place, which he also owned, and bought two new homes in Smooth Rock Falls with money to spare. Both combined, he said, cost about $141,000.
“We’ve been having a blast,” said Williams. “I take my wife for a walk in the boreal forest every day. We canoe, kayak, do all the things that northerners do.”
This is one in a series of stories about issues affecting northeastern Ontario. It's brought to you with the assistance of Laurentian University.
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