This is part of a series of stories on retirement and second home destinations in North America.
When Ron and Karen Penner decided to retire in Elliot Lake, Ont. – six hours north of their home in Shelburne, Ont., – Mr. Penner remembers the startled reaction of their two sons.
“ ‘Are you crazy? It is so far away,’ ” he recalls them saying initially.
Raised eyebrows are not uncommon when it comes to imagining this northern Ontario city of 11,300 – halfway between Sudbury and Sault Ste. Marie – as a retirement destination. The average winter temperature is –15 C, with average annual snowfall of 248 centimetres, twice that of Toronto.
But as some retirees plot warm-weather escapes, others embrace the contrarian’s alternative: bargain-price housing set in the rugged beauty of the Canadian Shield, four-season recreation and local services that include a 57-bed hospital.
A former boom-and-bust uranium town, Elliot Lake fell on hard times in the early 1990s when the last mines closed for good. Since then, with some success, Elliot Lake has promoted itself as a retirement community tailored for outdoors enthusiasts looking to stretch their retirement savings.
With one-industry resource towns in northern Ontario losing employment, Elliot Lake Mayor Rick Hamilton says his community is one of the few with in-migration, crediting the 50-plus strategy. Even so, the city’s population dropped 1.7 per cent between the 2006 and 2011 census.
Though not for everyone, Elliot Lake has attracted a certain breed of retiree, says Christine Brunet, a sales agent with locally-owned Oak Realty, one of three real estate firms in the city.
“What I am seeing is the young retiree who is mid-50s and early 60s and wants to simplify,” she says. “With ‘simplify’ comes affordability.” Some of her clients stay year-round, making the most of winter, while three-season residents choose to head south.
Outdoor enthusiasts, the Penners look past seasonal annoyances (black flies in spring) to embrace all seasons.
In 2012, the couple sold their 10-acre property in Shelburne and bought a 1,300-square-foot, chalet-style home with 168 metres of waterfront on Dunlop Lake, 15 minutes north of Elliot Lake, for about $200,000. They moved in last year, when Mr. Penner retired at 55 from the City of Mississauga.
“For some people, owning a house on a lake like this is a pipe dream,” Mr. Penner says. “Up here it is affordable, it’s manageable.”
Since the couple moved in, Mr. Penner has carried out improvements that include stairs to the water’s edge and a floating dock. An avid fisherman, Mr. Penner fishes from the dock or a small boat for trout, pickerel and small-mouth bass. “Every time I want a fish-fry dinner I go out and catch it.”
The availability of prime waterfront property like that owned by the Penners grew out of a 2001 Ontario government program that permits Elliot Lake to buy and develop Crown land for private sales of up to 400 lots on area lakes.
Mr. Hamilton says 250 lots have been sold so far, with the potential for a second phase of 700 lots by 2015, subject to consultation and provincial approval.
He cites the cottage lot program as one initiative to diversify the range and quality of properties for sale. But plans for an upscale condo development for retirees or cottagers remain stalled by a soft economy. (In June of 2012, tragedy hit when the Algo Centre Mall collapsed, killing two women inside the city’s shopping hub. After some delays, construction on a new plaza is slated to begin this spring, with completion expected by October, according to the mayor.)
Meanwhile, not everyone who comes to Elliot Lake is a buyer.
Elliot Lake Retirement Living, a private non-for-profit organization responsible for marketing the city to 50-plus retirees, manages more than 1,500 units of rental properties once owned by the area’s mining companies. Rents range from $600 a month for a two-bedroom apartment to $875 a month for a three-bedroom home.
Marielle Brown, manager of marketing and sales for the organization, says 94 per cent of units are occupied. She estimates about 200 newcomers arrive annually as renters.
Rhoema and Ross Fancey, born in Newfoundland, met by chance in their early 60s when they were living in Peterborough, Ont. In 2008, they returned to The Rock and got married, expecting to spend their retirement there.
But with five daughters between them in three provinces, including British Columbia, travel from Newfoundland proved challenging.
“We love Newfoundland but to come away every year and visit the children and 11 grandchildren, it costs a lot of money,” says Ms. Fancey, 67, a retired nurse.
In 2012, while on a driving trip to Vancouver, the Fanceys stopped in Elliot Lake for a tour run by Elliot Lake Retirement Living, which offers visitors a two-night hotel stay as part of a discovery package.
Intrigued by their first visit, the Fanceys stopped in again on their way home and sealed their decision to relocate. The couple sold their home in one day and in fall, 2012, rented a two-bedroom apartment from Elliot Lake Retirement Living. The unit, with updated amenities and a 19-foot balcony, rents for $680 a month.
Renting “gives us the freedom to go and do what we want within reason,” Ms. Fancey says.
Leaving Newfoundland was “bittersweet,” she adds, but finds Elliot Lake reminiscent of her home province. “It is rugged, beautiful, with swamps, bogs, lakes and fishing and good down-to-earth people.”
The Fanceys enjoy year-round fishing, with one lake a five-minute walk from their apartment. “We always have fish in the freezer,” says Ms. Fancey, adding they have no need for a boat because area lakes are so accessible.
As for other entertainment, she and her husband take in local amateur theatre and pay $10 a game to watch the Elliot Lake Bobcats of the Northern Ontario Junior Hockey League.
“You can’t beat that,” she says. “The quality of the hockey is very good.”
As for the Penners, the couple says their sons have become converts and visit often.
“We absolutely love it,” Mr. Penner says. “It is the best thing we ever did.”