After announcing a stimulus package that included lower land prices, tax breaks, and business loans, the town fielded hundreds of inquiries from around the world from people interested in learning more about what Smooth Rock could offer.
“Although we didn’t sell any residential lots, we did sell two commercial lots, and it brought people to Smooth Rock to have a look and see what our community was like,” said Sue Perras, mayor of the town of 1,300, which is situated about an hour north of Timmins.
Developed as a mill town, Smooth Rock Falls today is an outdoor enthusiast’s dream, with natural amenities that boast opportunities for skiing, fishing, canoeing, swimming, biking, snowmobiling, hiking, and more.
It’s also become popular as a bedroom community for workers travelling to the nearby communities of Cochrane, Kapuskasing, and Timmins.
Slowly and surely, more people have decided to take a chance on the town, and since that time, more than 60 families have moved to Smooth Rock Falls, Perras said.
Some are older folks who grew up in the town and have moved back to retire, while others are discovering the area for the first time.
Newcomers have relocated from other areas of Northern Ontario, and as far as southern Ontario, Ottawa, Alberta, and Newfoundland.
Perras noted that there have also been others who have moved away in the last four years, but that leakage doesn’t outweigh the influx of new settlers to the area.
“We have more people coming in than we have people leaving,” she said.
That boost in activity has resulted in a spike in property values.
In 2017, houses were selling for about $55,000, Perras said. Today, they run around $135,000, a remarkable 144 per cent increase in value.
One success story is the Moose Motel, the town’s only accommodations, which sold recently for $975,000 – a marked increase from the 2017 price tag of $325,000.
Perras said the motel is operational and its new owners have been busy with a flurry of renovations just in time for snowmobile season.
Prosperity was not on the radar in 2006 when Tembec – the town’s largest employer – permanently closed the local sawmill, putting 250 people out of work.
At that time, Perras said, house prices were so low, people were practically giving their homes away.
“They never sold, and eventually we had to destroy them,” she said. “They just walked away from their houses.”
By 2014, the town’s council decided to take a proactive stance toward its future, developing a 20-year official plan, which includes a community improvement plan and a new marketing strategy, which promotes the town as ‘Near North, near perfect.’
Among the incentives are land packages for 90 per cent below market value; generous tax breaks for homeowners over three years; grants for business owners of up to 15 per cent of eligible costs; loan guarantees for construction projects for up to 50 per cent of construction costs; and a tax increment grant program for businesses.
In October, the town cut the ribbon on its most recent project, the Near North Industrial Centre, a 9.57-acre industrial park with 12 turnkey lots zoned general and light industrial. Each is serviced with water, wastewater, electrical, telecommunications, natural gas, and rough grading.
Developed on the former Tembec property, it runs alongside the Mattagami River and is just a five-minute drive from Highway 11.
There’s also a nearby rail line, formerly used by Tembec, that’s had its rails removed, but Perras said they could be relaid and the line could still hook up to the main line if needed.
“That could definitely be a possibility in the future that the town would look at,” she said.
Earlier this summer, Smooth Rock celebrated the arrival of its first tenant, DBI Diesel, which provides diagnostic, maintenance and repair work on heavy duty diesel equipment.
With a handful of mines operational or in development in the area, Perras believes businesses related to mining or transportation would do well at the park.
Yet the town is also realistic in its expectations. Attracting a major industrial heavyweight that would employ 200 people is probably unlikely, she said, but a series of small businesses would be welcome.
“Because we have no employment industry here, we needed something that would attract a small industry,” she said. “Like anything else, if we get a small industry that employs three or four people, and that could be three or four families that come to town. That’s important to us.”
While buzz generates around the industrial park, Smooth Rock’s town council is already on to the next step in its plan.
Under the Waterfront Master Study, the town will look at how to develop 140 acres of waterfront property in Smooth Rock Falls.
Perras is confident that the town is inching back toward growth and stability, even if it takes a little longer to get there.
“We’ve got a very dynamic council, and they’re forward-thinking,” Perras said.
“Sometimes we need to take risks and we have to envision what the future could like and work toward that.”This article is one in a series focused on progressive Northern Ontario communities that are taking advantage of opportunities to position themselves for economic growth.