The Town of The Blue Mountains, Ontario
A rare natural gem
Business View Magazine interviews Mayor Alar Soever, Town of The Blue Mountains, Ontario, for our focus on Economic Development in Canadian Municipalities
The Blue Mountains, nestled between the Niagara Escarpment and the shores of Georgian Bay, is highly regarded as one of the most popular tourist destinations in the province of Ontario. Its iconic ski destination – Blue Mountain Resort and the four-season resort village that has grown at its base – are a place that visitors flock to for fun on the slopes in the winter, and for golf, fine dining, hiking, and biking during the summer season. A true four seasons mecca, spring and fall offer amazing scenic vistas and even more reasons to explore.
Some municipal governments would believe that because people from all over come to enjoy the community, it is perfect just the way it is. But, the Town of Blue Mountains staff and council recognise they need to tackle some huge issues, like housing affordability, parking, and community safety to ensure that people from diverse socio-economic backgrounds can enjoy the town and its beautiful, natural environs. Mayor Alar Soever and the council of The Blue Mountains, know they need to take planning for a bright future to a new level. They know the future of the town relies on attracting young people and younger families, keeping the tourism industry vibrant, supporting the deep agricultural roots of the community, and ensuring the community is safe and maintains its small-town feel.
Although Mayor Soever didn’t live in The Blue Mountains as a child, his parents maintained a cottage there and memories of his summers in the majestic natural surroundings brought him back for good. He recalls, “As I grew up I had a career as a geologist and travelled all over the world, and I can truly say that there was nowhere else I’d rather settle down than right here. So, now I’m back where I spent all my summers as a child and, you know what? It’s changed, but it’s still got that small town feel and there’s something to do all year round, whether it’s enjoying the fall colors and the trout and salmon fishing, skiing in the winter, or the bay in the summer. There are not many places in the world where you can enjoy as much as you can here.”
The Town of The Blue Mountains is located in Grey County on the shores of Georgian Bay in Southwestern Ontario, where the Beaver River meets Nottawasaga Bay. The municipality was formed in 2001 when the Town of Thornbury was amalgamated with the Township of Collingwood, not to be confused with the nearby Town of Collingwood. The population of The Blue Mountains was a little over 7,000 people in 2016, and it continued to grow steadily until the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March 2020, which is when the population boomed as people made their seasonal homes their primary residences. Soever believes there may be upwards of 10,000 people living in the community today.
The municipality’s largest town centers are Thornbury and Clarksburg with about 3,000 permanent residents in each. From an education perspective, there is an excellent elementary school and students attend high school in nearby Meaford. Before the pandemic, The Blue Mountains welcomed over 2.5 million visitors annually, with many people enjoying their cottages, seasonal condos, and summer homes. But many of those have become permanent dwellings now that many living in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA) are working remotely, and are no longer shackled to their offices.
Soever believes a fundamental shift in the way people live is on the horizon, noting, “Before the pandemic people were commuting into downtown Toronto from the outer parts of the GTA. They were driving an hour, an hour and a half to commute one way That works out to 10 to 15 hours a week. All of a sudden during COVID they were able to work from home and they had an extra 10 to 15 hours. So they thought, ‘hey, this is pretty good’. And then they realized their options here. People will still go in to work, but from what I’m hearing, it might be they are going into the GTA for two days to work instead of coming up here for two days on the weekend. So they are going to be up here five days and two days in Toronto, rather than the other way around.”
While that is great for the local economy, it is also problematic and has been for quite some time. As a tourist town they need affordable housing for those working in the tourism and service industries, and right now the average sale price for a house is well over $1 million. The Town set to work creating the Attainable Housing Corporation to figure out how to bring in development of smaller, more affordable homes for young professionals. Two-thirds of the town’s population is currently over 60 and they need to attract younger families for balanced growth.
Soever reports that the Ontario Provincial Police are having difficulty attracting new recruits because they can’t afford homes in the area and he doesn’t believe young doctors, nurses, pharmacists, or hospitality industry workers can afford to make the move either, with the housing prices the way they are. He notes, “The Attainable Housing Corporation has been really working hard on design criteria and permitting, and we hope to have some shovels in the ground in the next year or so. At least for their first unit. The other thing that we’re looking at right now as part of our official plan review is what can we do to encourage more people to build attainable units.”
The major employers in the town are Blue Mountain Resort and Village area where unique tourism-based businesses abound, and there are also two industrial facilities – Breaker Technology, an ASTEC Brand, which fabricates mining equipment and Masaba Canada, which makes conveyor belts.
The town is busy working on a transportation master plan, while also recently buying a few parcels of land and constructing paid parking lots with free passes for residents. Shawn Everitt, The Town of The Blue Mountains Chief Administrative Officer says, “We are committed to ensuring both residents and tourists have the opportunity to enjoy all of outdoor wonders and the shops, wineries, restaurants, and more. We are blessed with so many natural amenities such as our trails and open spaces… but we are seeing significant impact to our rural roads, whether it be just cars parking on the side of the road because they aren’t at the trail heads or they don’t know where the trailheads are. So a big part of that master plan is looking at what we need for parking.”
The municipality has also embarked on a drainage master plan, as well as upgrading their wastewater facility in Thornbury and adding new water storage facilities in the east and west ends of the community to be ready for the development of those attainable homes.
Soever believes planning for the future, with their Integrated Community Sustainability Plan, official plan, and transportation plan is essential to the continued prosperity of the town – for all those who enjoy visiting, those who reside there, and those who may choose to reside there. He admits, “I think the COVID-19 pandemic and the change in how people live is only going to put added pressure on what was already a fast-growing area. So, it’s something that we have to be cognizant of.”
Both the Mayor and CAO are focused on thinking and planning for what lies ahead. And it’s because they know the community has so much to offer, so much to explore, and so much to give to residents and visitors. They want to ensure it thrives for everyone well into the future and that’s an approach not many towns take when it comes to progress.
Everitt knows how rare a town like The Blue Mountains is and shares, “It is a beautiful place to live. It’s an awesome place to work. It’s got the benefit of being able to still maintain that small town feel, in particular Thornbury and Clarksburg and the rural area and this small-town feel needs to be protected and celebrated. It continues to maintain a strong apple industry that’s being accented by the vineyards and a local wine and cidery industry. We have agritourism and the benefit of having the Blue Mountain Resort and all the ski areas and the golf, and in particular the Georgian Bay shoreline. All of these natural amenities make The Blue Mountains a spectacular place to live and work.”
*Top Photo Courtesy Blue Mountain Resort
AT A GLANCE
The Town of The Blue Mountains, Ontario
What: A popular scenic municipality; population approx. 10,000
Where: On the south shores of Georgian Bay in Grey County