Drumheller's bargain prices, slower pace, entrepreneurial spirit draw influx of new residents

Canadians no longer consider Drumheller just a summer holiday destination for exploring dinosaur fossils and the hoodoos.

The popular, summer tourist destination is evolving as more people decide to stay for more than just a visit

The iconic hoodoos of Drumheller, Alta., are a popular draw for tourists. But Canadians no longer consider the town just a holiday destination. (Travel Drumheller)

Canadians no longer consider Drumheller, Alta., just a summer holiday destination for exploring dinosaur fossils and the hoodoos.

In recent years, people across Canada dealing with rising house prices, pandemic-induced existential crises or transformative "work from anywhere" capabilities, have been eyeing the tourist town's potential as a permanent home.

As a result, house sales are up and vacancy rates are down. And some say the town's become more lively — even eclectic.

"We heard from a lot of people who have lived here for a long time that Drumheller was sort of dying in a way. It was very quiet downtown," said Deana Hannem, who moved to Drumheller from Calgary in 2018.

Calgary transplant Deana Hannem, owner of Dinosaur Valley Massage and Wellness, says she had her pick of properties under $100,000 in Drumheller. (Colleen Underwood/CBC)

"So in the last three years, we've really seen the uptick too, and it's definitely a much more vibrant place to live these days."

Bargain buys

Hannam says she and her husband struggled for years to buy a home in Calgary.

Being self-employed — she's a massage therapist, her husband's a drywaller by trade — Hannem says the couple only qualified for a $100,000 mortgage in Calgary.

"They had approved us for a laughable amount and I'm pretty sure they thought I'd go away," said Hannem.

Determined to find a home, the couple started broadening their search and stumbled across Drumheller, a town of about 8,000 that offered homes in their price range.

"To look out here and find that you had not just a few options, but like over 20 options and they weren't just tear down houses, they were perfectly livable, maybe needed some upkeep, maybe needed some love, but there were some that they really didn't need anything."

Realtor Joe Castonguay says business is hopping as potential buyers from all across Alberta and beyond are eyeing Drumheller. (Colleen Underwood/CBC)

Drumheller realtor Joe Castonguay says he's hearing from prospective buyers in Saskatchewan, B.C., Ontario and across Alberta.

Since the start of 2022, 37 single family detached homes have sold ranging in price from $80,000 to $482,000, according to MLS listings.

"It's a pretty incredible start to the year," said Castonguay.

In 2018, 98 Drumheller homes were sold. That number has increased every year since, with 166 sales in 2021.

Seek simpler lifestyle

Castonguay says it's not just young couples and families who are looking for affordable starter homes.

He says others are searching for a simpler lifestyle. 

"COVID's brought a lot of new people to town, a lot of new businesses have come to town, and I think people are reverting back to maybe a little slower pace," said Castonguay.

He says the explosion of telecommuting has made it easier for people to live almost anywhere.

And in some cases, Castonguay says, people sell their higher priced homes in the bigger cities, purchase a less expensive home in Drumheller and pocket the difference.

Chris Lorenz did just that. He's now mortgage free.

Lorenz, a chef, struggled with work in Calgary during the pandemic, but his partner, a graphic designer, was working from home and thriving. So they decided to use his downtime to fulfil his desire to return to small-town living.

He grew up in rural Saskatchewan and Alberta.

Chris Lorenz is mortgage free and working as an executive chef after making the move from Calgary to Drumheller in 2021. (Colleen Underwood/CBC)

In March 2021 they bought a four bedroom house with a huge yard and garage in Drumheller for under $200,000.

And before he knew it, he found work as an executive chef in Drumheller, a close-knit group of friends and some inner peace.

"In Calgary if you have to go from the deep southwest to the northeast, it's 45 minutes in a vehicle, right? And you have to plan a week in advance if you want to do something, whereas here we get a quick text and say, 'Hey, do you want to meet up at the brewery? You want to come over to our place? Do you want to do this or that or the other thing?' And it's a little bit more spontaneous and a lot more relaxed," said Lorenz.

"So we're going to stay for the long term. We love it out here."

Venture opportunities

Not everyone is drawn to Drumheller for its affordable housing or its slower pace.

Lana Phillips and Natalie Lum recently moved from downtown Edmonton to Drumheller after taking a COVID-holiday there in 2020.

Phillips noticed the community's vibe had evolved since their last visit there about five years prior.

It now had a coffee roaster, a craft brewery, lots of patios and a painted pride crosswalk.

"Just seemed like things were going on and there was some momentum in town," said Phillips.

She says they also spotted a business opportunity: no one was renting bikes to explore the town's extensive river pathway system.

Within a year Phillips, who was completing her MBA, and Lum, who has a culinary background, moved to the small town and opened their business, Bikes and Bites.

And they haven't looked back.