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'Renaissance' of Elora, Ont., puts housing pressure on longtime locals

People in Elora say they're worried about being priced out of the market as the town enjoys a tourism boom, the opening of a luxurious hotel and spa, and first home buyers escaping Toronto real estate prices.

The reopening of the Elora Mill, a luxurious hotel and spa, is expected to bring a higher-end clientele

The newly constructed Elora Mill, containing a hotel and spa, which opened on July 6, 2018. (Submitted by Pearle Hospitality/taken by Taylor Jackson Photography)

The pretty and quaint town of Elora, Ont. is changing. 

Long known as a destination for campers, water tubers and day tourists curious to stroll river walks showcasing the Grand River's 22-metre high gorge cliffs, the town is reinventing itself as more than just the gateway to a spectacular nature walk. 

Tourism is booming. With quirky shops, a craft brewery now located in the core, the Riverfest music festival running for the tenth year in a row and beautiful photos of the village spreading on social media, the town is experiencing a transformation. 

At the centre of it all is the new Elora Mill Hotel and Spa, which reopened on July 6. The company also owns the Cambridge Mill and five other property ventures across Canada. 

The mill is a historic landmark in the town, but was closed almost ten years ago. Now, refurbished into a resort, it "offers 27 luxurious guest rooms and six room types that showcase the finest in retreat indulgence," reads the website.
Pearle Hospitality, owned by Aaron Ciancone, bought the mill back in 2010, "when it went bankrupt." (Submitted by Pearle Hospitality/taken by Taylor Jackson Photography)
  

A room with a king bed, booked for a single person, starts at $450 per night. 

"To bring a true luxury boutique hotel to Ontario — we're really excited," said Aaron Ciancone, president of Pearle Hospitality. 
A room in the new hotel costs approximately $450.00 per night. (Submitted by Pearle Hospitality )

"This is what a lot of people want. They don't want to leave the country or leave the province — it's right here in their own backyard and we can offer that little mini getaway," he said.  

Ciancone said he had his eye on the Elora Mill in 2001, when it first came up for sale, but he wasn't financially ready in his career to purchase it. 

"I've always had a love and admired it," Ciancone said, adding he grew up in his family's restaurant, the Ancaster Mill and developed a "love for historic sites and settings such as this." 

"It wasn't until 2010 when the Elora Mill went bankrupt that I put a bid in, for half the amount that it sold for in 2008 and that was successful," he said. "I was just being patient." 

Top clientele means wealth will 'trickle' down 

Ciancone said the new establishment will create "a spillover effect" for Elora and contribute to the town's growth. 

"By bringing tourism through the hotel to the town, there's the trickle effect," he said. "They're going to visit the shops, the local restaurants, they're going to spend money in the area. It has already started."

Ciancone said the new hotel will also act as a "catalyst" to have the town undergo a "transformation," with infrastructure being built by the township.  

When you see the quality, the attention to detail we did, you can see it's changing in a positive way, you'll see that the value is here. - Aarone   Ciancone , president of  Pearle  Hospitality

"Seeing the construction, seeing this come to life, it has created a lot of energy to the area, that led to a lot of people taking action, whether that's fixing storefronts or bringing in new businesses," he said.

Town in 'renaissance'   

Fred Gordon is a member of the Elora Business Improvement Area, and owns the shop Pariscope with his partner Paul. Gordon established his business in 2001 and has been living in Elora for 20 years. 

"Elora is sort of experiencing a renaissance since the late 80s" said Gordon as he stands in middle of his gift shop. 

He said, recently the redevelopment of the Elora Mill "sparked" and "inspired" the township to renovate the downtown core and take on new public works.  

"Over a hundred million dollars worth of work is going into the property right here on the edge of our town," Gordon said, referring to the new Mill. 
Fred Gordon, part of the Elora BIA, has been in the town for 20 years. (Peggy Lam/CBC)

"We're getting a bridge replaced this year and in 2020, we're having another bridge replaced," he said. "We're also just waiting to get this street-scaped so that's causing a lot of excitement in town."

"Elora was so popular as a day trip destination, you can hardly get up and down the sidewalks," said Gordon, referring the town during the eighties. 

"Those people have gone away," he said. "They've discovered other places and have done other things but what's happened is they've rediscovered Elora and now have families or grandchildren coming back." 

Gordon said the town is seeing a "younger generation of people" rediscover Elora due to social media, especially Instagram. 

"Those things spread like wildfire," he said.

People are saying 'I've never heard of  Elora ,' but just the images themselves are so alluring that they find out who we are and how to get here.- Fred Gordon, Elora  BIA
"People are saying 'I've never heard of Elora, but just the images themselves are so alluring that they find out who we are and how to get here," Gordon said. 
The Elora Brewery was established in 2015. According to many locals, the restaurant has changed the nature of the town by attracting young tourists nearby. (Submitted by the Elora Brewing Company)

People come for beer

Matt Lawson, general manager and co-owner of the Elora Brewery, said he has noticed more tourists coming since his business was set up in 2015. 

"A lot of people will come here, hike, swim and play in the Gorge, and then finish it with some shopping and then come to the Brewery for a pint," he said. 

"What we're experiencing is a lot of craft beer tourism at elevated numbers, where people just come to see us," Lawson said, stating that "beer fans will travel." 

We're experiencing a lot of craft beer tourism at elevated numbers, where people just come and see us. - Matt Lawson, co-owner of the Elora Brewery

Lawson said the landscape of Elora's "uptown" where the brewery is located is also changing, as tourists are now drawn to the area as a whole instead of just the "popular Mill Street and those classic shops along the river." 

Young families from GTA move in 

Gordon said he has also seen a new wave of businesses come into town "that aren't always geared toward satisfying needs of a tourist," but for people who have just moved into the community.  

Health companies, personal trainers, yoga studios and "things that people use in their day-to-day lives in order to generate their wellbeing," are just a few of these, he said. 

"We actually had people moving into our community who didn't necessarily know that much [about it] when they moved here," Gordon said.  

"They saw real estate that they could afford so they decided to move here and now they're discovering the community for the first time." 

Emily Boden, 25, moved to Elora from North York, Ont. last October. She and her husband bought a home for under $600,000.
Emily Boden said she bought her home in Elora last year, for under $600,000. (Peggy Lam/CBC)

Boden said after graduating from university, she was saving for a down payment with her husband for two years, but they couldn't find anything affordable in the Greater Toronto Area, so she started looking in smaller towns that were accessible to Guelph and Kitchener-Waterloo. 

"We were all kind of over it, the GTA doesn't feel like a particularly unique or special place to be," said Boden. "It's hard to buy a home, it's hard to start a family. Everyone's commuting to Toronto. Everything is cutthroat." 

We were all kind of over it, the  GTA  doesn't feel like a particularly unique or special place to be...Everything is cutthroat. -Emily  Boden , new homeowner in Elora  

"Most other places in Canada, by then we had enough for a down payment, but not in Toronto," said Boden. 

Boden said she didn't know anyone in the area, but Elora appealed to her because of how "self-contained" it is. 

"It's got the cutest coffee shops that you can walk to, some great breweries, restaurants," she said.

"It's so beautiful. We're kind of close to the city, but it's like a little oasis," said Boden, sharing how she gets excited when her family and friends come into town. ​

"It's a slower pace of life, it's way more friendly," Boden said. "It appeals to more outdoorsy people because of the [Elora] Gorge." 

"I'd like to say that we'd be in Elora for a really long time," she said.  

Rising property values, Airbnbs

But some local residents are concerned about this influx of displaced Torontonians. 

Property values have been going up and some are afraid they'll be unable to afford to stay in the place they've always called home. 

Resa Lent is the owner of the Desert Rose, a vegetarian cafe with a light pink exterior that has become an icon in the town. She has lived in Elora since 1977 and she said property values are "going through the roof."

Resa Lent is the owner of the Desert Rose. Lent said she's been living in Elora since 1977 and her first job, was at the Elora Mill. (Submitted by Resa Lent, photo by Dan Dunlop )

"I couldn't afford to buy a house in town anymore and that makes me sad because where else would I go," she said. 

Lent plans to close the Desert Rose this summer because "it's about time" after 41 years. After that, she said she will be moving into a friend's apartment. 

"When I shut down the Rose, I know that I can always find a job," she said.
Maddy Smith has been in living in Elora for 10 years. (Submitted by Maddy Smith )

"I've been here for ages and I have an incredible life here. I can always make a pot of soup and sell it," she laughed.   

Maddy Smith, 28, is a renter in Elora and has been interviewing people from Centre Wellington about the challenges of affording a home in the area, for a personal project. 

"The people I'm talking to now are working good jobs, they're educated, they've gone to college or university, but they can't afford to purchase a home in the community they've grown up in," Smith said. 

Smith grew up in Fergus, Ont. and has been living in Elora for 10 years. She's been able to secure her own apartment in the town for $910 per month, a price she said is now unheard of. 

Smith said she's been hearing stories of life-long residents who are being displaced and evicted and believes that's happening because Toronto's housing crisis is spilling over. 

"The aftermath of that is people are finding places in a commutable distance that's inexpensive, and when people are moving in from outside the community, that's increasing rental prices," said Smith. 

Smith also said with increased tourism, she's seen more Airbnbs popping up in Elora.  

"Where are they coming from?" she said. "My guess is that those are now displaced apartments that used to be on the market." 

Smith said every day, she sees people being worried about keeping up with costs to maintain their home. 

They're not just giving up a community that's pretty to look at, they're giving up all their resources and their connection, their sense of belonging.- Maddy Smith, Elora resident 

"It's a huge worry for people that they have to leave," said Smith. "They're not just giving up a community that's pretty to look at, they're giving up all their resources and their connection, their sense of belonging."  

Gordon from the BIA said he had heard similar stories. 

"Quite frankly I feel for them when it comes to property values," he said.

"Some of them are family people who have raised their family here and their children can no longer afford to buy real estate in this community, they can't live close to their family and they have to look elsewhere." 

But Gordon said the town is poised to grow. 

"We've grown from a town that was almost going nowhere to a town that's pointed directly toward the future," he said. 

"There are people who are afraid that Elora might become something of a Disneyland, that it will be plastic. I have firm faith that will not happen to our village, mostly because of the pride and entrepreneurial spirit that exists in Elora."

"As trends change, we can't always just appeal to the same people. We have to work hard to get new people to come in and enjoy our town." 

About the Author

Peggy Lam

Reporter

Peggy is a reporter based in Winnipeg. She has worked for the CBC in Vancouver, Toronto, St. John's, Kitchener-Waterloo and Edmonton. Got a story idea? Email her at peggy.lam@cbc.ca or tweet her @peggylam_

With files from the CBC's Maeve Doyle and Haydn Watters