Small Towns, Big Opportunities: Renewed Interest in Rural and Northern Ontario Can Trigger a Small Town Comeback

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A focus on pro-growth policies such as Opportunity Zones, High Speed Internet and Natural Gas Expansion can reverse small town decline, says new OREA report

TORONTO, ON – An ambitious pro-jobs, pro-growth set of ideas can reverse the economic and social decline experienced by too many of Ontario’s smaller and northern communities according to StrategyCorp and the Ontario Real Estate Association’s (OREA) new policy report, Small Towns, Big Opportunities: Unlocking Growth in Ontario’s Rural and Northern Communities. A growing desire for homes with more space and outdoor amenities and greater opportunities to Work from Home – both side-effects of the COVID-19 pandemic –provide a golden opportunity for a small town comeback.

For decades, too many Ontario small communities have suffered from employment stagnation, lack of growth and social decline. Talented youth had abandoned their rural and northern hometowns for larger cities and a shift away from traditional resource and goods producing industries has exacerbated the out-migration. Between 2008 and 2019, a staggering 87% of jobs created in Ontario were in Toronto or Ottawa.

“For too long, rural and Northern Ontario have lost too many jobs and too much talent. One-size-fits-all government policies often accelerate the trend, robbing these communities of a brighter future,” said OREA CEO Tim Hudak. “But together, we can turn this around. A Government of Ontario focused on these ideas will help create and attract jobs, reverse the out-migration of young talent, close the infrastructure gap, and foster more housing starts.”

OREA’s new policy report identifies 15 recommendations that address long term solutions to housing, education, job creation and access infrastructure in rural and Northern Ontario. These recommendations include:

Installing broadband in rural areas. As the 21st century version of electrification, an aggressive plan to expand high speed internet to rural and northern Ontario will spur economic growth and reverse out-migration. The quality of internet service is the top question Ontario REALTORS get in smaller communities. By modernizing provincial easement rules and utility pole access, the Ontario Government can dramatically expand access to this essential service.

Implementing Opportunity Zones. Opportunity zones would provide preferential tax and regulatory treatment to spur investment in provincially identified high unemployment, low growth or shrinking communities. Opportunity Zones have a proven record of attracting capital and spurring commercial, residential, and industrial real estate development.

Expanding natural gas access to rural and northern areas. Doubling down on the successful government policy of investments in natural gas expansion projects will lower the cost of business, enhance job creation, and make life more affordable in rural and Northern Ontario.

The renewed interest of Ontario residents in smaller communities is supported by OREA’s latest Pulse Check on Consumer Attitudes with Nanos Research. The OREA research found that a majority of Ontarians active in the real estate market agree (27%) or somewhat agree (34%) that living in a rural area is more appealing to them now than before the pandemic.

“We believe that these ideas can help reverse the decline and build upon the natural talents, entrepreneurship, beauty and resources in small town and Northern Ontario,” said Hudak. “The recent trends towards work-from-home and greater interest among Ontarians to live in small towns make us even more optimistic.”

The Ontario Government has a unique opportunity to capitalize on the momentum of the changing demographic trends brought on by the pandemic by addressing affordable housing, pre-existing barriers to employment and a lack of local infrastructure in non-urban Ontario.

“An economic and infrastructure plan – one that includes housing – for our province’s rural and northern communities would secure sustained and reliable economic growth in Ontario for decades to come,” said John Oddi, OREA’s Home Builder Liaison. “It’s an opportunity for the government to signal that our province’s smaller communities are no longer afterthoughts in any provincial policy decisions.”

More information about the new policy report and OREA’s recommendations can be found here.