Rural Boom: Why millennials are flocking to small town Canada
Surrounded by acres of forest and farmland, Markdale appears cut out of the wilderness. To an outsider, the town of around 1,200 people looks like any other small Ontario town. There’s a quaint downtown strip of a dozen stores selling local goods, a handful of churches, and Canadian flags waving in the wind on every porch. But this sleepy, unassuming little town is in the midst of a revival.
The twin crises of the COVID-19 pandemic and housing affordability have led to a record-breaking number of people leaving Canada’s biggest cities. Urbanites from southwestern Ontario have been driving up Highway 10 and buying up affordable homes in the country where they can put down roots and be closer to nature. It’s a dramatic reversal of the decades-old trend of young people fleeing small towns in favour of urban centres.
“This is one of the most significant changes in migrant flows since the Industrial Revolution,” says Michael Haan, an associate professor at Western University and a demographer who studies internal migration. “It’s signalling the potential for a revitalization of rural Canada.”
Markdale had fallen on hard times after the free trade explosion in the 1990s pushed many manufacturing plants in town to shut down and move offshore. The residents who remained were aging and with few young people moving to town, stores were shuttered and houses sat empty.
But all of that is changing, and rapidly. First came a Tim Hortons, then a supermarket. New businesses are opening downtown run by young adults from Toronto who sought an escape from city life.
A new $66-million hospital is in the works and multiple subdivisions are being built by developers who say their hundreds of homes are being snapped up by young families from southwestern Ontario cities. There’s been more development in Markdale in the past year than in the last 30, according to the town’s mayor, and it shows no sign of slowing down.
“Rural destinations are no longer this backwater, outdated, outmoded place to live anymore because the amenities that previously were only found in cities now exist there,” says Haan.
But the affordability crisis that newcomers were trying to escape has followed them into the countryside. Rental prices have gone up considerably and property values in Markdale have nearly doubled in the past year alone, pricing out many locals in the area. It used to take about four months to sell a home in this area, but lately, they’re selling in 24 hours, according to Eric Robertson, a lifelong resident and local real estate agent.
“What ended up happening is that you almost have these concentric circles of housing price valuation,” Haan says. “It is almost as though there was a drop of water and it just rippled outwards.”
Markdale was grappling with housing and labour shortages prior to 2020, and the migration has exacerbated the situation. It’s led to some tension between newcomers and lifelong residents. While many locals said they are excited to see new faces in town, some worry about how Markdale will manage this boom — and what the bill will be for taxpayers.
“The tension between local and ‘cidiot’ is palpable,” wrote one resident on Facebook. “Sadly, our small-town life is being taken over by the cities who have driven the housing prices right out of reach for our residents,” wrote another who described themselves as an area “lifer.”
In a place where you have to be born and raised to be considered “from there,” big changes — especially when they come by way of Toronto — can be a tough pill to swallow.
This small town revival isn’t just happening in Markdale, or even Ontario. A 2020 survey by RE/MAX found that 32 per cent of Canadians no longer want to live in large urban centres, and instead would prefer a rural or suburban community. Driving this trend are younger Canadians under the age of 55.
Across Canada, rural towns are being challenged and transformed by the big city next door. Global News travelled to Markdale to meet some of the people behind the local boom — and those who find their lives changed because of it.
Simone Weinstein, 27, and Celeste Lopreiato, 24, had always dreamed of operating a small-scale farm. They both grew up in Toronto but were living in a tiny basement apartment in Guelph when the pandemic hit. Lopreiato says the first few months of lockdown were “brutal” — with two dogs, Weinstein working from home, and only 500 square feet, they decided to start looking for a new living situation.
Rising house prices added urgency and distance to their search. When they came across a five-acre property on the outskirts of Markdale last November, they took the leap.
“We just kind of fell in love with the property, but also fell in love with the area,” Lopreiato says. One of the biggest draws: access to nature. The property is on a quiet side road surrounded by dense forest. It’s here they’ve been able to grow the garden that will produce food for their vegan meal delivery service called the Conscious Kitchen.
As a young queer couple, they had reservations about moving to such a rural area where residents tend to lean more conservative. But to their surprise, they’ve been warmly welcomed by their neighbours and discovered a tight-knit LGBTQ2 community in Markdale.
“I’ve just been overwhelmingly surprised with how happy I am here,” Lopreiato says. Weinstein agrees, adding that they have no regrets about the move into the country. The couple hopes to grow their business and adopt children in the coming years.
“This house is too big for just the two of us,” Weinstein says.
Graeme Demarsh, 30, and Ashley Patrick, 30, didn’t envision themselves leaving Toronto. They loved the city. They were active theatre-goers, went to Raptors games, and had date night at a new restaurant every week. But after being cooped up for months in their small downtown condo, talking over each other on Zoom calls, and being outbid on houses across the GTA, they decided to expand their search to rural Canada.
When they came across Markdale, it just clicked, Patrick says. The new developments in town and kilometres of nearby trails were major selling points for the couple. They’re both able to work from home for Toronto-based companies. He’s a web developer and she’s a travel agent. Despite identifying as city people, they’re embracing life in the countryside.
“We are a walking country song. We came, we got the dog, we bought the pickup truck. We watch the sun set off our back deck. It’s really amazing,” Patrick says.
The only thing they miss: Uber Eats.
“It’s worth the tradeoff,” Demarsh says. “It might sound a little cheesy, but I do think it’s been good for our soul to be out here.”
Lynn Croft, 65, has lived in Grey Highlands, the regional municipality comprised of six communities including Markdale, all her life. A few years ago she retired from her job as postmaster and moved onto a quiet street in Markdale. It was supposed to be the forever home for her and her husband. A swing bench sits at the side of their yard, but it doesn’t get much use these days.
“You used to look across the field and see nothing by trees,” she says. Now they wake to the sound of construction. The trees have been cleared to make way for new subdivisions.
“There’s no individuality in them,” Croft says. “It makes us look like every other town.”
She says she doesn’t mind new people coming to town as long as they volunteer and become active members of the community. Her biggest worry is the housing issue and the cost of this rapid growth.
“Will my taxes go up this year?” she asks. “Are we going to be pushed out because we can no longer afford to live here?”
It’s a valid concern. Since the housing boom, lifelong locals have been selling their houses to cash in on the hot real estate market and moving out north or even out of the province. It’s a trend that has had major repercussions for the largest employer in town: Chapman’s Ice Cream.
The company was facing a small labour shortage prior to the pandemic, but now it’s gotten “considerably worse,” says Ashley Chapman, 42, the vice president of Chapman’s Ice Cream. His parents started the company in Markdale in 1973 with a handful of employees and has grown into the largest independent ice cream producer in Canada.
“A lot of our locals decided, you know what? Now’s the time I’m going to sell and I’m going to move out of the area,” he says. “We’ve lost a lot of good employees just by the cost of housing.”
The lack of rentals and housing means many of his workers are having to commute into town and it’s making it difficult for them to fill jobs.
“We’re paying considerably more than what you could get paid in manufacturing in the GTA, but guess what? There’s nowhere to live,” he says.
The company is hoping to expand in the coming years, which would add anywhere from 100 to 200 more jobs, Chapman says, but that’s on hold until the housing market cools off.
Despite the challenges ahead for the family business, Chapman says, overall, the growth of Markdale is a good thing.
“We needed people in this area. We’re going to need more people in this area,” he says. “You’ve got to start somewhere.”
Patricia Ellingwood shares his enthusiasm. She’s a transplant herself. In 2002, she moved to Markdale from Halifax.
“I don’t blame them for choosing Markdale. … I came here and I couldn’t look back,” she says. “It’s just through a series of unfortunate events we had a lot of stress brought on because of it.”
In May, Ellingwood and her 10-year-old daughter were forced to leave the house they had been renting for a decade when the owner decided to sell. For months, they looked for a new place to live and came up empty.
“The biggest barrier was the lack of availability. The increased rent didn’t help,” Ellingwood says. In the past, she’s never had an issue finding a place to live. But now, after 20 years, she’s had to say goodbye to the town that’s become her home.
Finally, through some local connections, Patricia found a new rental in a town 30 minutes away. She says she’s grateful to have it, but the commute means her cost of living has greatly increased. The stress brought on by the situation took a toll on her daughter. She started breaking out in hives.
“It’s been a struggle. It’s been tough. But we got through it.”
Aakash Desai, 30, got into politics six years ago with the goal of making Markdale more attractive to people his age.
His family immigrated to Canada from India when he was 16. After finishing high school in Brampton, he followed his family to Grey Highlands where his father opened his own business. He’s now the deputy mayor of Grey Highlands.
The municipal council took measures prior to 2020 to attract newcomers and developers to Markdale, but progress was slow, Desai says. Then the pandemic hit and seemingly all at once, they came.
“It’s 50 per cent our efforts in trying to make Markdale a developer-friendly community and 50 per cent the housing market booming northwards along Highway 10,” he says.
And it’s not just Markdale that’s booming. Neighbouring towns of Hanover, Blue Mountain and others have seen a similar increase in interest over the course of the pandemic.
Both the mayor of Grey Highlands Steve McQueen and Grey County Warden Selwyn Hicks have made the housing issue their number one priority. McQueen says he wants to make sure young locals have a chance to break into the housing market.
“I have three young boys, two in their twenties and one that’s 16,” says McQueen. “If it’s not the bank of Mom and Dad, how are they ever going to get into the market?”
Grey County, which includes nine municipalities including Grey Highlands, has created a task force to begin to grapple with the housing shortage and has created a fund that will go toward creating affordable housing.
Four thousand homes were built last year in Grey County and there are plans to add 15,000 more, according to Hicks. Only a small percentage of those homes will classify as affordable housing.
“We have a lot of work to do there,” Hicks says, adding that this issue can’t be solved by the county alone.
Despite these challenges, the local leadership remains optimistic and excited about the young, diverse talent settling in the area.
“I think it’s going to make our town better,” Desai says. “Whatever issues there are, we’ll face them as a community.”
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