The Heart of Muskoka
Business View Magazine interviews Rick Maloney, Deputy Mayor of Bracebridge, Ontario, for our focus on Economic Development in Canadian Towns & Cities
The community of Bracebridge is a well-loved destination getaway in Ontario’s cottage country. Known as “The Heart of Muskoka”, Bracebridge is less than two hours from Toronto, making it a popular location for vacationers looking for the tranquility of the north, without the long commute. Built around a stunning waterfall on the Muskoka River, Bracebridge offers beaches, trails, and beautiful historical architecture in a welcoming, business-friendly setting.
A longstanding Bracebridge tradition, Santa’s Village brings over 80,000 visitors a year to the town. The Christmas-themed amusement park was established in 1955 by a group of local businessmen, believing it an ideal location on the 45th parallel, directly between the equator and the North Pole. The park is open from May to December and offers a variety of activities for all ages to enjoy. Of course, Santa is in residence, and receiving visitors!
With a population of 16,000 the town of Bracebridge is more than just a vacation destination, it is the hub of the Muskoka region. As Deputy Mayor Rick Maloney describes, “We see Bracebridge as both a business and government center for Muskoka, in many respects. We have South Muskoka Memorial Hospital, a satellite location for our school board, our courthouse… and the seat of our Muskoka District Municipality government is in Bracebridge.” For several years, the focus of the town has been on attracting more full-time residents to the growing community. Maloney adds, “There was a time when towns like Bracebridge rolled up the streets after Thanksgiving or Labor Day weekend, but that’s not the case anymore. We are well past being a tourist town, we do rely on tourism to a great extent, but we have folks that are living, working, playing here in Bracebridge, 365 days a year.”
Fortunately, there is no shortage of development going on in this growing community, even through the pandemic. New housing inventory is increasing, with the recent approval of a subdivision plan to add 200 new units in 2021. Mattamy Homes, a major developer, has continued to build homes in Bracebridge, often expanding into areas of subdivisions that were previously left undeveloped. Like many communities in Ontario, affordable and attainable housing is an issue. “Pre-COVID, one of our strategic priorities was to facilitate a very strong mix of housing,” says Maloney. “We‘ve opened some opportunities for smaller lots and have encouraged, not just us at the Town of Bracebridge but at the district level, some money for developers to build attainable and affordable housing. It’s been a high priority for us, and certainly, we have adjusted our policies.” Keeping development charges below maximum rates and offering affordable housing initiatives to developers are a few ways the town is working to promote this type of development in the community.
Bracebridge has seen an increased demand for skilled workers in the building and renovation trades. With more people staying home, and working from home, many are investing in property improvements, resulting in busy local contractors and sometimes long waits to get a project completed. This demand has created an opportunity for younger people who would like to stay in the area. Maloney explains, “With the cottage lifestyle, there is a high demand for skilled labor, particularly when it comes to building on the lakes. We’re fortunate to have Georgian College in our community, offering apprentice-type programming that makes people job ready and able to stay in Bracebridge to work. We don’t want to have an exodus of our youth leaving the community. As much as it is a challenge, we would like to have opportunities for people to stay here, by choice, not leave by necessity.”
Bracebridge has continuously invested in the community to create an environment that is appealing and ready for industry, as well as those who work from home. Maloney reports, “We are a four-gigabyte community and a majority shareholder in a local energy provider, Lakeland Networks. Well before the pandemic, they have worked on securing government assistance to expand broadband in our community. I think that will be the advantage, coming out of COVID, how connected to the worldwide web we are. We recognized that need a long time ago and have been working with our electrical service provider and Lakeland in an effort to expand their broadband throughout Bracebridge.”
With the addition of two industrial parks, the town is prepared to welcome more business sectors. CAO Stephen Rettie explains, “We have unlocked a couple sections in our town for some light industrial development. We worked with a local organization to put in the road infrastructure and electricity infrastructure and gas to service several industrial lots. The demand for business in Muskoka is going to be tourism related and servicing the cottage industry, but we recognize the need for a good cross section of jobs. Unlocking some of those lands to create light industrial development has proven beneficial to us, and we’re getting constant requests. There is building in both the industrial parks that will create some moderate-income paying jobs and make the economy more robust than just focusing on tourism and servicing the cottage industry.” The District has also committed to investing in the Muskoka Airport, which is expected to pay off with growth and specialized employment opportunities for the community.
Downtown Bracebridge is a charming historic area, featuring gorgeous red brick century buildings, unique architecture, and stunning views of Bracebridge Falls. Dedicated to maintaining the character of the downtown, Bracebridge has a community investment program which awards grant money to business and property owners for signage and building improvements. Provincially recognized, this award-winning program is part of the town budget, with $100,000 designated yearly to downtown improvement grants.
“We recognize that we do have a unique downtown, with our historic homegrown red brick predominant through the downtown core,” says Maloney. “And we want to make sure that we keep that kind of hometown feel of a small community in our downtown.” The program’s success is measurable, with close to 1 million dollars invested in downtown for every 100,000 in grant money. “It is really keeping up with the historic look of downtown, so it is in good shape and not showing its age,” Rettie notes. The Town of Bracebridge is currently developing a master plan for continued downtown revitalization, including a recently purchased lumber mill. This property has a significant role in future development plans, linking the Muskoka River with the core area.
Currently underway is the replacement of a 100-year-old bridge, known as The Black Bridge. The historic structure, which crosses the south branch of the Muskoka River, is a key connection for residents and has needed replacement for several years. “Bridges cost a lot of money,” Maloney explains. “If we had to replace this bridge on our own without some assistance through the Canada Infrastructure Program, we would be hard pressed to live up to some of the expectations of the community and the enhancements that we would want to see. We were fortunate to receive grant money for $2.1 million, on a $2.5 million project. That allowed us some flexibility to do some design enhancements that look and fit into the community and provide some accessibility enhancements like a secondary walkway that would allow pedestrians and vehicles to be separated.”
Another major infrastructure update is the building of a multi-use Community Centre to replace a 100-year-old library and an 70-year-old arena that no longer meet the needs of the growing community. The project, which is nearing the end of the design stage, was meant to be a full build, saving valuable public dollars. Currently unable to secure government funding, the plan is going to a phased approach, starting with the arena, then adding a library and fieldhouse. Maloney acknowledges, “As we plan and go forward with this initiative, we are doing all the design work for what would have been a full build, so that we’re shovel ready at any given time to move ahead in any of the phases. We will continue to approach the upper levels on funding opportunities. Right now, the municipality is moving forward with 100 percent municipal funding on the arena portion.”
Bracebridge is continuously working to maintain its proud status as the “Heart of Muskoka” and develop a strong home town for full-time residents. As Maloney shares, “One of the things that comes to mind when folks think of Muskoka and Bracebridge is the elaborate cottages and people enjoying recreation. But we are not sitting back on any kind of laurels here in our community. We recognize that we need to be very proactive to ensure that Bracebridge continues to be the town that people recognize as a great place to live, work and play.”
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AT A GLANCE
What: Scenic hub of Muskoka cottage country; population 16,000
Where: Two hours from Toronto, Ontario