Nicole Grigorov calls her move to Mattawa “serendipity.”
It was the summer of 2017, and her son had been accepted to study at North Bay’s Nipissing University. But he needed a place to live.
So mother and son hopped in the car, making the five-hour trek from their home in the Niagara region, and just a few days later, Grigorov was the proud owner of the Mattawa River Resort.
“We were looking for student housing, and I bought a resort and moved my entire family here,” chuckled Grigorov. “That’s how it all started.”
Since taking over ownership last year, Grigorov and her contractor husband, Adrian, have invested countless hours and hundreds of thousands of dollars into the year-round lodge, a stalwart of the area’s long-established tourism industry.
Twelve private cottages and cabins dot the shoreline of Champlain Lake, which has access for boating, swimming, and fishing. At the Cardinal Restaurant – named in tribute to Grigorov’s late mother – food is prepared fresh and by hand, with many dishes featuring local ingredients. Even the beer on tap is sourced from within Ontario.
They’ve refurbished the cabins and the dining room, created a new menu, and cleared land to make way for planned campsites. Grigorov has hired 19 people, and by the time she’s done, she expects to employ a staff of up to 50.
“There’s still lots I want to do, but like my husband tells me, Rome wasn’t built in a day – relax,” she laughed.
Whether it’s the idyllic, rolling hills, the friendly small-town charm, or the affordable living, there’s just something about the Mattawa-Bonfield area that calls to the entrepreneurial spirit.
Over the last few years, a half-dozen entrepreneurs have chosen to adopt the area as home, breathing new life into established businesses and rejuvenating the community with their eager and enthusiastic spirit.
Located about an hour’s drive east of North Bay along Highway 17, the Town of Mattawa has a population of just under 2,000, but factor in neighbouring townships, and it’s home to thousands more.
Gary Bath was living in the Greater Toronto Town of Milton, working in a long-time role as a transportation manager, when he suddenly found himself without work. A friend suggested they “take a drive” to visit a property that was up for sale.
When he first arrived at the Welcome Inn, a 14-unit, six-cabin motel situated on the shoreline of Earl’s Lake, Bath didn’t take long to decide he and his wife, Nav, and their two young children would become Northerners.
“We came here, took a look at the property, and everything happened so quick,” Bath said. “We didn’t even have so much time to think about it. When I saw this, I said, ‘You know what? I’m going to go for it.’”
He relished the opportunity to become his own boss, and the quiet tranquility afforded by small-town life proved irresistible.
“It’s so awesome,” he said of his new home. “It’s so peaceful.”
In the 18 months since their purchase, the Baths have slowly started transforming their 8.7 acres.
They’ve renovated all 14 motel units, and are now revamping the cabins, which will eventually be winterized for year-round use. Other plans include reopening the long-closed restaurant and creating camping sites.
Clientele ranges from contract workers staying for weeks at a time to snowmobilers and ATVers coming for outdoor weekend adventures. Fishing is first rate in the 15-foot-deep Earl’s Lake, its waters teeming with bass, perch and even the occasional muskie.
Despite never having lived outside the GTA, Bath said his children are adapting well to school, and despite the shock of their first Mattawa winter – with heavy snowfall and chilling -40 temperatures – he’s confident the move was the right decision.
“The people in this town are so friendly,” he said. “I hate to say it, but you don’t get that in city life.”
New owners have settled in at two more area campgrounds, and their stories offer many parallels.
Lazy Rock RV Park & Campground was purchased by Midland couple Charisma Haight and Jonathan Keller in 2017. Experienced RVers who have travelled broadly, the pair had looked at hundreds of campgrounds before finding a gem situated on Taggart Lake in Papineau-Cameron Township.
The campground had been closed for three years and was already close to being sold to a new buyer when they realized it was exactly what they were looking for. When the prospective buyer had a change of heart, they seized on the opportunity.
“We fell right in love,” Haight said.
They’ve rebuilt the park from the ground up, tearing out old infrastructure and adding new campsites, a new dock and, mostly famously, chic, tiled shower facilities that visitors rave about on travel review websites. Their target market is couples seeking quiet, secluded campsites.
“We were looking at what’s missing in the area and what businesses are doing well in their markets,” Haight said.
“We’re not out to compete with the other businesses. We want to work together to make this a really great little tourist town.”
At Sid Turcotte Park on the Mattawa River, Ian and Brooke Foster are similarly seasoned travellers, spending six months each year exploring the U.S. with their children by RV.
Looking for a new base where they could enjoy their Ontario summers, the family purchased the campground – sight unseen – in 2017.
“We got drawn to Mattawa by complete luck,” Ian said. “We had another campground that we were going to purchase that fell through.”
Sid Turcotte Park was listed that same day, and the pair snapped it up.
Like the others, the Fosters have invested extensive time and money upgrading the park, introducing new activities, and installing modern infrastructure. Ian believes working together is the best bet for local businesses to expand their reach into the shoulder season, and he’s eyeing the scuba dive industry as a potential new market.
“There’s a huge amount of dive business in Tobermory, so the more you can attract to Mattawa, peel some of that away, just for the town in general, the better it is,” he said.
Beyond the hospitality industry, the relocation trend has even extended to the pest control business.
Grant’s Pest & Animal Control, managed by Dean Grant, relocated up to the small community of Calvin, from Amherstburg, six years ago. Success has come slowly. But after hiring a local marketing person to revamp the website two years ago, business has flourished.
The family-run company can get rid of everything from bed bugs to raccoons. Grant said he’s been able to carve out a niche servicing smaller communities across a wide catchment area.
“Part of our success is due to our range,” said Grant, whose father Kevin started the company more than 30 years ago. “There’s a very underserviced area around North Bay.”
Since relocating, Grant, his wife, and three-year-old daughter have integrated into the community; Grant even serves as a volunteer firefighter.
“Mattawa reminds me of what Amherstburg was when I was really little, but now you don’t run into anybody you know anymore,” Grant said. “They’ve lost their community feel and Northern Ontario still has that; people are happy to see you.”
Setting up in the region hasn’t been without its challenges.
Slow internet service in some areas has frustrated the former urbanites, who are accustomed to lightning-fast broadband. And the lack of reliable workers – of both the skilled and service varieties – is a common complaint. But that hasn’t thwarted any of these plucky entrepreneurs.
“We couldn’t be happier with our choice here,” Brooke Foster said. “This is somewhere where we can enjoy our work, that we’re proud of, and we can improve. We want everybody to see how proud we are of it and the beauty of the area.”
Grigorov, meanwhile, is just getting warmed up.
Last year, CTV used Mattawa River Resort as a backdrop to film its crime series “Cardinal,” while this past summer, famed Canadian angling guru Bob Izumi spent a week at the resort fishing Champlain Lake for an episode of his TV show.
Grigorov has been fielding inquiries from organizations searching her out to host corporate retreats, which she sees as a great opportunity to team up with other area businesses, helping to fill each other’s hotel rooms.
She’s in the early stages of creating a group comprised of accommodations businesses, which would meet regularly to discuss how to capitalize on visitor traffic.
“I feel like I’m a part of something,” she said.
“I can’t even explain it, but it’s so exciting to me.”