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The mayor of Gimli wouldn’t blame the uninitiated for assuming the small Manitoba town on the western shores of Lake Winnipeg took its name from the heroic dwarf from the Lord of the Rings trilogy.
“When I watch Lord of the Rings that’s the first thing that hits me, too,” Randy Woroniuk says with a laugh.
Yet the town of about 1,600 year-round residents was founded more than a century ago – long before J.R.R. Tolkien wrote the popular fantasy series – by Icelandic immigrants who settled on the shores of the large lake to take advantage of its abundant fishery and striking scenery.
Gimli means “fire” in Norse – a somewhat appropriate moniker. Long a hot spot for cottagers seeking to cool off in the lake’s shallow waters during Manitoba’s often scorching summer heat, the town has increasingly become a destination for retirees.
Almost one-third of its population is now 65 and older, with a median age of about 56, according to 2011 census data. That’s up from a decade earlier – the 2001 census – when the median age was about 50.
Among the several hundred retirees who now call Gimli home are Dave and Joyce LeBlanc. A retired RCMP officer, Mr. LeBlanc had been stationed in Gimli in the 1990s before transferring to Thompson in northern Manitoba.
“We had to make the decision of where we wanted to retire to, but really, there was no decision for us,” says Mr. LeBlanc, 67.
With one son living in Winnipeg, Gimli’s close proximity to the city – less than an hour’s drive away – was appealing.
So, too, was their familiarity with the community. “Having friends made it an easy choice.”
Like most small Canadian towns, Gimli offers a sense of belonging and community. Everybody knows their neighbours, crime is rare, and there are plenty of community activities – from curling, snowmobiling and ice fishing to art classes and sailing.
But beyond these desirables, the LeBlancs’ decision to retire in Gimli boiled down to economics.
“The cost of housing is not as high compared to if you were thinking of moving to B.C. or even Winnipeg,” Mr. LeBlanc says
The town celebrates its Nordic roots. (Town of Gimli)
Home prices in and around the community have been steadily climbing over the past decade, but they still remain affordable compared with other lake resorts located near the Ontario border, says real estate broker John Bucklaschuk with Royal LePage JMB & Associates in Gimli.
A new 1,400-square-foot home in Gimli, with an attached garage and a large lot, can be had for $300,000. A similar home in Winnipeg easily exceeds $400,000 on a smaller patch of land.
Condominiums, like side-by-sides at the former Canadian Forces air base barracks, are even more affordable, with prices between $100,000 and $175,000. Mr. Bucklaschuk, an former NDP MLA who served as a cabinet minister in the 1980s, says the biggest challenge for many retirees who want to move to Gimli is inventory.
“We do have a bit of a problem of having enough housing to meet the demand,” he says. “But new homes are getting built, so our inventory is improving.”
Much of the growth is in subdivisions located within a 20-kilometre radius of Gimli. Mr. Bucklaschuk estimates that three-quarters of the population lives outside of the town itself.
The most sought-after properties have long been along the lakeshore. Some homes exceed $1-million, Mr. Bucklaschuk says, adding that even a lot can cost about $200,000.
Living lakeside is not important to many retirees who settle in Gimli, including Eric and Carol Hyland who moved from Calgary seven years ago.
At the time, they wanted to escape the bustle of Calgary’s oil boom, so Mr. Hyland did a little searching on the Web and found Gimli. To him the town offered the right mix: a relaxed pace and low-cost real estate compared with Calgary and other retirement destinations such as B.C.’s coast.
The Hylands sold their Calgary home and paid substantially less for a three-bedroom one backing onto a golf course in Sandy Hook, about a 10-minute drive north of Gimli.
They quickly immersed themselves, finding a large peer group.
“We’re into the curling, the lawn bowling and other stuff like that for seniors,” says Mr. Hyland who sold fire protection equipment before retiring. “If you sit around and complain there’s nothing to do, you’re doing something wrong.”
A big draw for the Hylands and other retirees is that Gimli is a four-season resort town with the services of a small city – a hospital, a large grocer, many restaurants and a large hardware store. Most residents travel to Winnipeg only if they have an appointment with a medical specialist, says Mayor Woroniuk, a retired conservation officer.
“It’s the rural lifestyle with an urban flavour.”
Besides being a hub for commercial fishing, with a large harbour for fishing and sailing boats, the big economic drivers are composite material manufacturer Sigma Industries and a distillery owned by multinational Diageo, which produces the world’s supply of Crown Royal whisky.
Yet Gimli is best known as a summer tourist destination. Somewhat sleepy during the winter months, Gimli and surrounding area’s population balloons to about 15,000 during the summer with cottagers and tourists.
Besides its beaches, world class walleye fishing and water sports, Gimli hosts two popular summer festivals. The Icelandic Festival of Manitoba on the August long weekend celebrates the town’s Nordic roots, featuring demonstrations of Viking warfare and an Icelandic-themed fashion show.
Equally renowned is the Gimli Film Festival that takes place in late July.
“The Gimli Film Festival probably rates No. 2 in Canada next to the Toronto Film Festival – at least that’s what I’ve heard,” Mr. Woroniuk says.
That may be an exaggeration, but it’s certainly the most popular film festival in Manitoba. Among its highlights is free nightly screenings on the beach.
“They put a huge screen in the lake,” the mayor says. “You bring your lawn chair and set up on the beach with the waves lapping at your feet.”
In fact, it’s the many fond memories of summers past that make Gimli an attractive option for retirees, Mr. Woroniuk says.
“A lot of people who have retired here had summer homes, or cottages, here.”
While the resort town atmosphere is a draw, Gimli’s relaxed pace and affordability are the clinchers for many retirees, Mr. Hyland says.
“Calgary had just become far too busy,” says Mr. Hyland who lived there for 27 years. “Now, we often drive to Winnipeg and say, ‘Oh, I think that’s a car up ahead. Do you think we have to pass it?’ It’s just nothing compared to what we were used to.”