COVER

Wanted: city slickers

M.M. October 28 1996
COVER

Wanted: city slickers

M.M. October 28 1996

Wanted: city slickers

Low Cost Living in a Parkland Setting,” crowed the half-page ad in The Toronto Sun. “Fresh Air, Pure Water, Low Crime Rates, Lakes, Forest and Hills.” If that pitch called to mind the latest suburban subdivision promotion, readers might be forgiven for doing a double take when they caught sight of the accompanying map. Rossburn, Man., (population 660) a somnolent farm village 153 km northwest of Brandon, had set out to lure disenchanted city slickers with the promise of wide open spaces and bargain-basement real estate. What it had not anticipated was the response. The

560 queries, chiefly from young families with children—a few of whom jumped straight into their cars and drove west.

For months after the ad ran in May of 1993, reporters delighted in chronicling Rossburn’s new arrivals. But three years later, the results are mixed. Fourteen families came and stayed, but six others moved on, leaving a net population gain of 17. “We’ve had some successes and some failures,” says Mayor Shirley Kalyniuk. “Small towns are not for everybody.”

One much-interviewed couple, Bill and Dorothy Pot, who had fled Oshawa after an attempted abduction of their nine-year-old daughter, decamped in August—not back to the city, but to the bigger small town of Swan River (population 4,500), 485 km northwest of Winnipeg. “There’s a very fossilized pattern of habits in Rossburn,” declares Dorothy Pot, who found farm folk did not take to her New Age reflexology practice. “You can’t make a living there.” Counters Kalyniuk: “We never said, ‘Move here and you’ll become a millionaire.’ ’’

The mayor had dreamed of building an industrial park, but she has had to content herself with touting the hiking and fishing at nearby Riding Mountain National Park. “The scenery is just fantastic,” she raves. “You’ve got your rolling hills and your flora, fauna kind of thing.” But the Pots complained there was not enough to keep them or their three children occupied. Nor did they find country living cheaper. “Your winters are longer so you have higher fuel bills,” says Dorothy Pot. “And all your consumables are equal or more out here.”

Still, real estate remains such a fraction of city rates that Rob Szpakowski mistook the final prices for down payments. “Where else can you buy a house for $16,000?" he asks. Szpakowski, 37, had caught Rossburn’s saga on TV, but only called after he lost his job as a line cook at On the Twenty, a chic Niagara Peninsula eatery. When he and his wife, Rita, drove out to investigate, the welcoming committee showed him the Ceilidh House Bakery and Tea Room, which was up for sale on Main Street. “I just looked around and said, ‘I want it,’ ” he recalls. This month, his mother arrived, buying a house for $8,500, furniture included. “And now,” he reports, “it looks like the in-laws are coming too.”

Like most newcomers Szpakowski could not have stayed without starting his own business. “I work more, but it’s for myself so it doesn’t matter," he says. Still, it took a while to learn the rhythms of the town: at harvest time the streets are empty. And even the rest of the year, he no longer stays open for dinner or tries to dazzle the locals with anything too highfalutin. "They just sit and stare at it,” he says. But he insists he would never go back.

As for the mayor, she is broadcasting Rossburn’s charms around the globe this year with a home page on the Internet. “Who knows?” says Kalyniuk. “Maybe we’ll get people from the Oriental area.”

M.M.