This article is part of Next, The Globe's five-day series examining the people, places, things and ideas that will shape 2013.
On one side of the road, a field of dried corn stalks rattles in the winter wind. On the other side, a phalanx of bright yellow machinery rumbles over the earth, clearing the way for the swath of tightly packed new homes going up on the adjacent land.
The junction of Regional Road 25 and Louis Saint Laurent is the point where the unstoppable growth of Milton will collide with the countryside this year. It is the new frontier in a decade of remarkable expansion that has made Milton the fastest growing community in Canada.
Today it is the last, best West in the Greater Toronto Area, the only place with abundant undeveloped residential land where a home can be had for $300,000.
Within three decades, Milton Mayor Gordon Krantz expects the population will surpass 350,000, bigger than neighbouring Oakville and Burlington combined. That’s an astounding figure considering Milton, 84,000 strong today, had barely more than 30,000 residents in 2001.
The silver-haired Mr. Krantz, a former salesman, has been mayor for 32 years. He’s proud of what his city has become, but he can remember a time when this was a quiet, rural town scarcely changed from one year to the next.
“The traffic light was in place when I was first elected but there was only one,” he said with a wry chuckle.
Now, huge corporations are spending millions to build stores and warehouses here. Target’s new distribution centre extends as far as the length of dozens of football fields, for example. But growth has brought serious challenges. Roads have become increasingly congested and schools and hospitals have struggled to keep up with population pressure. Divides have emerged between Old Miltonians and New Miltonians. The new arrivals are considerably younger, having dragged the median age down by four years to 34, and they’re more multicultural. A major mosque is planned to accommodate the growing Muslim population.
There are still signs of small-town life, though. Mr. Krantz makes a point of keeping the door to his office open. He prints his home phone number on his business cards and at the end of each day needs only to walk across the street from city hall to get home.
He describes himself as a realist, someone who decided that rather than fight growth he would try to be its master. He saw the boom coming decades ago, he says, because of Milton’s proximity to Toronto. It began in earnest following completion of the Big Pipe to draw water from Lake Ontario in 2002. The developers wasted no time putting up new subdivisions. Thousands of homes were built, most of them at medium-density levels – where people can reach across the front porch to shake a neighbour’s hand, said acting chief administrative officer Bill Mann. Some of those homeowners have been cashing in, Mr. Mann said, citing an acquaintance who had bought and sold for profit 10 times in 12 years.
Milton, founded as a mill town in the 1830s, is now attracting thousands of former residents of Mississauga.
Mumtaz Warsi, an IT worker originally from Pakistan, was living in Mississauga with his brother, sharing a home with eight people, when he decided his growing family needed more room. They settled on Milton in 2006 and bought a newly built home. A lot of Muslim families were moving to the area and Mr. Warsi said the community felt very welcoming and accommodating to people of his faith.
“The schools here were highly rated and not too crowded at the time,” Mr. Warsi said. That was six years ago, when Milton was only about half its current size. Since then, six new public schools have been built and three more have been planned. Recently, Mr. Warsi’s children had to switch elementary schools when half the school was transferred to ease overcrowding.
Mr. Warsi is also president of the Muslim Association of Milton, a group that plans to open a new mosque next year a little further south on Highway 25.
Azim Rizvee, a real estate broker, is a major backer of the mosque and eagerly working toward its opening. Mr. Rizvee, also originally from Pakistan, moved to Milton a decade ago, when there were 125 Muslims in the city, according to the census. Now he estimates that number is several thousand. As he sits in an empty house on a huge swath of property purchased for the new mosque just off Highway 25, the call to prayer chimes on his cellphone. Mr. Rizvee said the community’s growth has caused some friction, but the new infrastructure, such as wider roads and improved parks and recreation facilities, compensates for some of the changes.
“People had reservations about urban sprawl and about the new communities moving in. But I think people were more concerned about losing the small-town feel of life in Milton with all the growth,” Mr. Rizvee said.
Keith Hincks, a retired public school administrator, certainly understands those who lament what has been lost. He lives on a hobby farm on the Niagara escarpment and used to have no difficulty driving into town to shop. This summer, with the chaos of road expansion in the district, it was quicker to drive to Guelph 30 kilometres away than to head downtown, he said.
He thinks it’s a shame that the area is being consumed with home building because it was once rich, agricultural land. He’s also disappointed that some land owners are taking cash to allow developers to dump hundreds of truckloads of earth on their property.
“When we moved in here 35 years ago it was very rural,” Mr. Hincks said. “We had hoped it wouldn’t happen so quickly because the infrastructure hasn’t been able to keep up.”
In 2013, Milton may be getting a big university campus. Today, the expanse of land on the town’s western edge looks like a flat, farm field in the shadow of the Niagara Escarpment. But it will soon be transformed into the city’s education village, expected to be the future home of a 10,000– to 15,000-student campus of Wilfrid Laurier University. The campus is being built over 400 acres with space for a business incubator, restaurants, retail and residences for students.
The massive development will also include a first-class velodrome, which will host the cycling events for the 2015 Pan Am and ParaPan Am Games. The 1,500-seat venue is expected become a national cycling centre as well as being used as a community recreation centre after the Games.