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The five kinds of small towns that want you to abandon your city

By Pieta Woolley

As housing in North America’s biggest cities becomes more and more unaffordable, some smaller but scrappy centres are hoping to lure frustrated urbanites.

Swish resident attraction campaigns are springing up, from Tofino. B.C. to Truro, N.S. That’s thanks in part to marketers such as Tom Gierasimczuk of Resonance Consultancy, who was recently featured on CBC urging smaller centres to market themselves as “Vancouver-lite.”

You want a hike in the woods? Great shopping? Smiling neighbours? These small towns are shaking it all over the Internet in order to jostle city people out of their municipal (dis)comfort zones.

In their marketing, many of them feature a new craft brewery, as though beer is shorthand for “something city people like” (Well, maybe that’s true.). Also, in images, the weather is nearly always summery in a country that, frankly, features a lot of ice and snow.
But let’s get real. If it’s not Stratford, Ont., the theatre scene is probably lacking.

If it’s not Sudbury, Ont., there’s a good chance that the university is little more than a satellite campus that’s strong on high school upgrading and low on visiting scholars.
Although small towns aren’t cities, they can offer solutions to some serious 21st century problems — that’s if you don’t mind the blackflies and subdued nightlife. In a globalized Canada, they at least hold out hope for home ownership among some of the Milennial and Gen X set, and an affordable retirement for some Boomers.

Here are five kinds of small towns that want you to abandon your city:

1. Retirement centres

Example: Elliot Lake, Ont.

The theory: This former uranium town has rebranded itself as a retirement community — successfully, too. About 4,000 of the city’s 11,000 residents are over 65. Elders come with pensions, which means that they aren’t looking for jobs (a good thing if your community doesn’t offer many). They also bring economic opportunity with them in the form of health-care jobs and other senior services.

Resident attraction campaign:
Retire Elliott Lake

2. Booming resource towns

Example: Prince George, B.C.

The theory:
You need a job? You want to be able to afford a house — even on one income? Quit struggling in Toronto. Prince George can supply both. This industrial centre in Northern B.C. is not known for its stunning architecture or cultural haughtiness. And its straightforward resident-attracting campaign respects viewers with its honesty: most speakers are immigrants who were thrilled to find a community that works for them.

Resident attraction campaign: Move Up Prince George

3. Too cool for school hubs

Example: Prince Edward County, Ont.

The theory: Like other centres where employment is iffy, Prince Edward County is leaning on its self-employed hipsters to show an alternative. Quit your job in Montreal and open a fromagerie on the lakeshore? Sure. The campaign features a brewery (naturally), several designers, an art gallery and a handful of small farmers.

Resident Attraction Campaign:
Build a New Life 

4. Filling up the empty

Example: South Knowlesville, N.B.

The theory: This is not the only town in Canada to give land away for free, but it seems to be ahead of the curve in intentionality. Manitoba’s Scarth and Pipestone, for example, are small agrarian centres that have emptied as farming evolved, and are hoping to attract new residents and investment by giving away land. South Knowlesville, on the other hand, is a from-scratch sustainable rural community.

Resident Attraction Campaign: Back 2 Land

5. Come home again

Example: Newfoundland and Labrador

The theory: Decades of underemployment, poverty and negative population growth created a significant diaspora from sea to sea. In 2015, the provincial government launched a campaign aiming to draw home what was lost. Sadly, the campaign’s marketing arm, Home for Good Newfoundland, seems to have gotten lost in a mountain of bureaucratic reports.

Resident Attraction Campaign: N&L Population Growth Strategy 

Author's photo
Pieta Woolley is a writer in Powell River, B.C.
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