Can cottagers keep Ontario’s lake regions afloat?

Sure enough, about 750 people walked through the door at last week’s official opening.

“We decided Fenelon Falls is where we wanted to be because it needed some help. It needed some more businesses on the main street and a little bit more vibrancy,” said Van Lierop.

When they moved full-time last September to their nearby Sturgeon Point cottage where they have summered for years, the pair wanted to be part of what they saw as an emerging rejuvenation with new, cool shops and a plan to put in bike sharing this summer. Wisener has joined the local Chamber of Commerce and Van Lierop the downtown revitalization committee.

Theirs is the kind of economic development and community building story that Ontario’s rural municipalities are eyeballing as they consider how to expand the role of seasonal residents into the business life of their communities beyond the tourist dollars they drop at the local grocery store and gas station.

“Coming up here we decided to actively participate in the community,” said Van Lierop.

“Every Sunday we have a dozen people sitting around our dining room table in the off-season and discussing Fenelon Falls and becoming quite fast friends. Our concern moving up here was we wouldn’t have the abundance of like-minded friends that we had in the city, and we haven’t found that.”

The fear that they wouldn’t find a market for their work was never an issue in the community about two hours northeast of Toronto. There are a lot of great builders in the area but not many designers, said Van Lierop.

“Our client basis is either people who have had cottages for a long time and just decided to prepare it for retirement or people who have moved up here already and realized the cottage doesn’t work the same way as my city house, and I need to rectify that,” he said.

Small-town Ontario isn’t attracting the immigrants who are flocking to cities such as Toronto, and rural communities are seeing an outflux of young adults to bigger job centres. Small businesses without succession plans are simply shutting down, says the association’s executive director, Terry Rees.

“We want libraries and other public services. If there’s no place to shop, do our activities, find a yoga studio, if there’s none of that stuff happening in our communities. the quality of life isn’t there,” he said.

“We’ve got to make sure our communities are thriving, aren’t hollowed out.”

Investing in rural areas could be as simple as getting some cottagers to extend their time there by working remotely Fridays and Mondays. But other cottage owners planning to use their second home as a full-time residence are considering rewiring rather than retiring their work lives with internet-based business ventures, mentoring and volunteer initiatives that could benefit local business.

Co-opting seasonal residents who are already invested and connected to a rural community might make more sense than trying to entice people from the city who don’t have that relationship, said Rees.

It’s in the best interest of both seasonal and year-round residents, and it’s why the association commissioned the study of a 45,000 square-km. area east of Toronto known as the Eastern Ontario Warden’s Caucus (EOWC). It extends from Kawartha Lakes in the west to east of Cornwall and past Pembroke in the northeast. It encompasses 90 municipalities and many popular GTA vacation areas such as Haliburton, Kawartha and Prince Edward County.

“A growing number of seasonal residents nearing retirement are spending more time in their second homes with some relocating permanently. With this move, these residents expect more municipal services to meet their needs, creating additional difficulties for local municipalities to service these dispersed waterfront properties year-round,” says the study.

The report — The Role of Waterfront Property Owners in Rural Economic Development in Eastern Ontario — may be focused on Eastern Ontario, but Rees says other areas of the province have similar populations and challenges.

EOWC has about 750,000 people and the area depends on property taxes for about 90 per cent of municipal revenue. The small commercial base means those communities are spending less than half of what they need for infrastructure in an area where the average income is about $ 4,000 below the provincial average.

An online survey of 407 waterfront residents that was part of the study found that 37 per cent had considered working from their lakeside properties and about 77 per cent of the respondents were 55 or older.

The majority identified themselves as retired, but when the researchers followed up, they found many were in fact still working part-time or volunteering.

Nearly half had owned their home for more than 25 years. The majority — 74 per cent — said their waterfront property was a second home.

Among the 112 respondents who indicated they already work from the cottage, 70 per cent were occasionally working remotely. A further 21 per cent live and work in their lake area communities and about 9 per cent work remotely full-time. Nearly 40 per cent said there was nothing to stop them from working in a rural setting.

But more than 30 per cent of respondents cited the lack of internet access as an issue. Distance from their clients was also viewed as a barrier to shifting more of their work outside the city.

“Waterfront property owners identified internet-based work as the largest opportunity for business establishment in rural waterfront communities, following by service and tourism-related businesses,” said the report.

Access to the outdoors was the main motivator for working at the cottage among more than 60 per cent of the respondents. But shorter commute times, a sense of connection to the area and the lower cost of living were also considered positives.

Denise Williams, acting economic development manager for the City of Kawartha Lakes, which includes Lindsay, Fenelon Falls and Bobcaygeon, said seasonal residents are already contributing to the vitality of those communities. She downplayed the divide among those who vacation in rural communities and full-time residents.

“In projects that we do in rural areas, we always look to find that knowledge and expertise because many (waterfront property owners) have already had a career in the city and have headed up to a more rural area to slow down a little bit. But they have incredible business knowledge and connections and quite often wealth. So there’s opportunities to unpack that and involve them in the community.

“Everybody wins,” she said.

“They vote here, they have a say, they come to our public meetings, they get involved in our volunteer opportunities,” she added.

Cottagers are also playing a passionate role in the region’s environmental initiatives to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

But at a time when knowledge and connectivity are valuable commodities, a $ 213-million plan by all three levels of government to expand broadband to the quarter of eastern Ontario residents who don’t have access is a game changer, said Williams.

“I see that as the biggest tipping point for people to be able to work anywhere if you can connect,” she said.

Williams acknowledges the challenges of keeping young people in rural areas, but that’s nothing new, she said. Repatriating the area’s workforce and encouraging new enterprise are key among the City of Kawartha Lakes’ economic development strategy.

“I grew up here, and I couldn’t wait to get out of here. But when it came to having my family, this is where I wanted to come back to,” said Williams, citing the slower pace but the abundance of sports and arts programing and the community’s safety and values.

Her family isn’t unique, she said. The 2016 census numbers suggest the community’s 25-to-50-year-old demographic is growing somewhat.

Designers Van Lierop and Wisener, both in their late 30s, moved to cottage country permanently after finding they were looking for ways to extend their time there. They pine occasionally for the artisanal breads of Toronto’s Brick Street Bakery, but the local Sobey’s stocks most urban comestibles, said Van Lierop.

Van Lierop said the couple have become unofficial spokespeople for the City of Kawartha Lakes.

As an unofficial ambassador, he has a standard pitch — “If you have an idea, and it’s one you would actually make money at, bring it here. You can thrive, it costs less to live here, it’s a slower pace and it feels somewhat vibrant. It feels like it’s constantly changing. The city felt like it was as diverse as it was going to get.”

He calls Kawarthas’ wealth “smart money” — it’s not flashed about in the same way as the Muskokas, but adds that people want to have nice things.

TORONTO STAR

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