A northern Ontario town nearly ruined by the collapse of its local paper industry is offering generous incentives to those who want to move there and help rebuild the community.
Smooth Rock Falls, Ont., saw its population cut nearly in half and its revenues tumble 40 per cent since the 2006 closure of the pulp and paper mill that was the town’s sole major employer.
Now, after a major rebranding campaign that’s dubbed the town “near north, near perfect,” Smooth Rock Falls says it wants to roll out the welcome mat for new residents and investors.
Doing so involves offering striking financial incentives to purchase land and establish companies in the town about 100 kilometres north of Timmins, Ont., right on the Mattagami River.
Would-be residents, for instance, can purchase parcels of land overlooking a nine-hole golf course for as low as $500, 90 per cent off its market value.
Smooth Rock Falls is also offering tax breaks for new home- and business owners, up to $2,500 off building permits, and financial loans from the city for those who might need it.
The moves are already starting to attract new people to town and reopen the sorts of businesses that are prevalent in thriving communities but had been shuttered in Smooth Rock Falls for years.
The town went without a grocery store for two years before a would-be entrepreneur signed on to take it over. And as of last month, a 38-year-old father of three has agreed to run a motel in the community.
Nayneshkumar Patel said he had long been seeking a business opportunity to move his young family away from Timmins, Ont., but said options in the southern part of the province demanded hundreds of thousands of dollars that he simply didn’t have.
After conversations with the town’s mayor and other officials, however, Patel said he realized Smooth Rock Falls was serious about making new residents welcome.
The town had all his family required, he said: a hospital, libraries, French- and English-language schools available for his children, who are all under age 10.
He took over the long-closed motel on Aug. 31 and said the move has been paying off so far.
“I see here a lot of opportunity,” Patel said in a telephone interview. “Anyone coming here, they’re doing well.”
The prospects were not so rosy for Smooth Rock Falls residents after the closure of the Tembec pulp and paper mill, according to Chief Administrative Officer Luc Denault.
The closure was a drawn-out process that slowly chipped away at the local economy, but the final closure eliminated 250 jobs in one fell swoop and sent the town’s fortunes into a nosedive, he said.
In the years since it shut up shop, the town’s population was nearly halved from 2,400 in 2006 to the most recent Statistics Canada estimate of 1,330 in 2016.
Revenue from taxation fell accordingly, he said, prompting the town to try and get creative.
Smooth Rock Falls developed a 20-year strategic plan focused on reviving industry in the town, he said, recognizing that the plan wouldn’t come to fruition without new residents to breathe life into the community.
Denault said he hopes the significant financial breaks may prove attractive to people ranging from young professionals to seniors looking to retire in a picturesque community.
Currently the city has 17 vacant lots available for between $4,700 and $6,800, he said, some of which are on prime land.
Once the 90 per cent discount is applied, those parcels would be available to own for less than most rental prices.
If people wish to build homes on that land, Denault said the town will wave up to $2,500 on building permits.
And those unable to secure full financing from the bank can look to Smooth Rock Falls itself for additional loans.
Once installed, new residents will enjoy tax breaks for their first three years in their new homes — 100 per cent the first year, 75 in the second and 25 for the third.
Denault said the town has also repurchased land of the former Tembec site and is in talks to attract a new form of industry to town, adding details were not available just yet.
He said new residents like Patel are injecting a sense of optimism back into the community.
“Seven years ago we almost had to give it away,” he said of the motel Patel is now running. “There was actually talks of tearing it down. So we’re seeing that business confidence coming in.”
Michelle McQuigge, The Canadian Press