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Northern Ontario town says $500 land listings boosted house prices, drew families

A plan that saw a small town in northern Ontario offer vacant lots for as little as $500 has helped revive its economy, officials said Thursday, drawing dozens of families and more than doubling property values.

Smooth Rock Falls launched the revitalization effort in 2017, years after the community was nearly ruined when its main employer -- a pulp mill -- closed its doors in 2006.

The marketing campaign, which saw the community offer vacant lots for as little as $500 in some cases, has led to shifting attitudes -- from "glum" to hopeful, to something even more exciting -- said Luc Denault, Smooth Rock Falls' chief administrative officer.

"We're beyond hope," he said. "We've seen the changes, and what's a great feeling is we're continuing to see it ongoing."

Sixty families have moved to the community since it started offering the incentives in 2017, officials report -- a boon for the town that had a population of 1,330 in 2016, compared to 1,830 in 2001.

Denault said the municipality relies on the census for its population data, so the number hasn't been updated since things started turning around, but less scientific tracking suggests the community has grown.

People are moving to the town an hour north of Timmins from all over the place, he said. Some came from the Greater Toronto Area and elsewhere in southern Ontario, while others came from as far as Newfoundland.

"Interestingly enough, we have former residents who are coming back as well, as they see progress," Denault said. "We're seeing familiar faces."

New businesses are also opening up, he noted. There are new restaurants, an information technology firm and a diesel maintenance and repair company.

Also exciting, Denault said, is the real estate market.

The average property listing is $137,000 this year, compared to $56,065 in 2017 -- an increase of 144 per cent.

Properties are also selling much faster -- sometimes within days.

"When I started 10 years ago, we were tearing buildings down," Denault said. "We are now selling buildings and they're moving very, very quickly."

There are still some of the ultra-cheap plots of land available from four years ago, he noted.

Would-be landowners purchase the land by tender, and receive 90 per cent of the purchase price back if they construct a home on it within two years.

Denault said most people have foregone that option, instead purchasing land with houses already on it.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 14, 2021.

The Canadian Press