When Ron Veitch and Karen Benson first visited Ridgetown, Ont., a sign caught their attention. It proclaimed the community’s motto: “The Friendliest Town in Ontario.”
Though he appreciated the sentiment, Mr. Veitch says he didn’t take it too seriously. But after he and his wife retired to Ridgetown from Vancouver in March of 2013, they discovered there was more to it than marketing.
“We hadn’t been here two weeks and our neighbours threw a party to introduce us to everyone on the block,” Mr. Veitch says. Then a next-door neighbour invited Mr. Veitch to his barn, showed him where he kept the key saying, “There are lots of tools here – use whatever you want.”
Tom Cardoso/The Globe and Mail
“It was quite a difference for us from living in downtown Toronto and then Vancouver,” he says. “That wasn’t a throwaway line, it is a friendly place to be.”
Ridgetown is one of the small communities that make up the Chatham-Kent municipality that nestles between Lake St. Clair and Lake Erie, about 300 kilometres southwest of Toronto.
Mostly rural and agricultural, Chatham-Kent is dotted with towns such as Ridgetown (population 3,250), Tilbury, Blenheim, Wheatley and Dresden, as well as larger centres such as Chatham and Wallaceburg. With affordable housing, proximity to airports, mild climate, provincial parks and plentiful beaches, Chatham-Kent is increasingly drawing city boomers looking for a more relaxed pace in a small-town setting.
Mr. Veitch, 65, and Ms. Benson, 68, were financial planners and “serial entrepreneurs” renting a condo in Vancouver, but they always knew they wanted to come “home” to retire, Mr. Veitch says. “The other side of it was, too much rain and gloom in Vancouver. We thought the weather would be better in southwestern Ontario.”
Heritage homes are part of the charm of Chatham-Kent communities. (CKbranding.com)
The couple looked at a lot of houses and finally fell in love with a 1920s-era home on a tree-lined street in Ridgetown.
“We do a fair amount of travel, so between Toronto and Detroit [airports], we’ve got the international flights covered, and for regional flights, we’ve got Windsor and London. That made a whole lot of sense,” Mr. Veitch says.
With a population of only 104,000 spread out over 2,500 square kilometres, Chatham-Kent’s geography is a definite draw for new 50-plus residents, says Audrey Ansell, municipality manager of resident attraction and retention.
“If you want space, big skies and unbelievable sunsets, this is the place.”
She describes the area as a geographic sweet spot. “We’re an hour to Windsor, an hour to London, an hour to Sarnia, 2.5 to three hours to Toronto, with five U.S. border crossings all within an hour.”
Another part of Chatham-Kent’s appeal is affordable housing. For example, the year-to-date average sale price of houses in Chatham-Kent was $152,000. “The tagline we use is that you can live the dream without breaking the bank,” Ms. Ansell says.
Affordability was definitely a factor for Tony and Jennifer Hill, who decided to move to Chatham four years ago.
Mr. Hill, 70 and Ms. Hill, 69, who were downtown Toronto real estate brokers at the time, were visiting family in the area. After an impressive meal at a “super little restaurant that would have fit into Bloor Street or Mt. Pleasant in Toronto,” Mr. Hill says the couple started exploring. They ended up selling their home and business in Toronto and bought a bungalow on the scenic Thames River.
“We were able to buy a fabulous property on the river that was built by a locally famous architect, and you couldn’t buy a decent condo for that in Toronto,” he says.
The Hills had planned to retire, but they opened a new real estate business in Chatham so that they could meet people.
“You can buy a 1970s side-split with a garage and finished rec room for $140,000 to $160,000 on a fenced lot in a nice subdivision with tall trees and all that. Or you can buy a brand-new or nearly new house in an area called Prestancia and that same type of property would cost you about $250,000 to 300,000,” he says.
The Hills appreciate that Chatham is smaller than Toronto, but not too small. The local Capitol Theatre hosts numerous charity events, performances and concerts. There are two wineries and a microbrewery.
The municipality is the No. 1 producer in Canada of tomatoes, carrots, seed corn and pumpkins, and the No. 1 producer in Ontario of broccoli, green peas and cauliflower. Because of the area’s agricultural bounty, farmers’ markets are plentiful, as are culinary events such as the annual C-K Table festival, and there is a flourishing local food movement.
“We have two provincial parks and lots of birding and swimming, all sorts of boating. Jennifer and I both have kayaks and we do a lot of paddling, a lot of walking, so it’s very good from that point of view,” Mr. Hill says.
Ms. Ansell adds, “Mitchell’s Bay [on the east shore of Lake St. Clair] has some of the best small-mouth bass and pickerel fishing in North America.” Chatham-Kent also boasts 11 public libraries and 11 seniors’ centres with exercise facilities and programming.
When it comes to health-care facilities, the Chatham-Kent Health Alliance has campuses in Chatham and Wallaceburg, Ms. Ansell says. Both of these hospitals act as teaching sites for the Schulich School of Medicine at the University of Western Ontario in London, Ont.
“Depending on where you are located, you might have other hospitals nearby,” she says. “For example, in Wheatley you might be close to the Leamington hospital, or if you are in other parts of the municipality, you might be closer to the hospital in Newbury.” Like many rural Ontario municipalities, Chatham-Kent is served by family health teams, which means better access to doctors on evenings and weekends.
“For specialist treatment, you’ve got London and Windsor. Some of the treatments are not on our doorstep, but they are not that far away, and we have a number of orthopedic surgeons in town,” Ms. Ansell says.
Since moving, Mr. Veitch and Ms. Benson both volunteer – with the municipality’s economic development advisory committee, and Ms. Benson with a business association and farmers’ market.
“We’ve been self-employed all our lives … we thought we had skills that perhaps could be useful,” Ms. Benson says.
Ms. Ansell says that Chatham-Kent is a great destination for people looking to put down roots and get involved. “If you’re looking for that kinship, that sense of belonging, that’s here.”