Why one bedroom community is thriving in the shadows of Winnipeg
New highway, rezoning of land opened the door for 200 condos, and a population boom, in Ile des Chênes
Chris Ewen was puzzled by Ile des Chênes when he stumbled upon the genesis of what this bedroom community — 12 kilometres south of Winnipeg's perimeter — would become, nestled between an old highway and the new one that replaced it.
"I was quite honestly dumbfounded that there is a big strip mall," Ewen said. "I think it was six units at the time, or five units at least — dumbfounded that it was in the middle of nowhere."
That row of commerce, beside dozens of condos, looked out of place in 2015, he thought.
This construction was new. When Highway 59 was twinned south of Winnipeg, the artery to the Manitoba capital moved 200 or 300 metres to the west of Ile des Chênes, a community of just over 1,500.
That created a chasm of land between the old highway and the new, like a wide ditch, that sat nearly unoccupied for years.
But it also created an opportunity for business — and more than 200 condos and townhouses.
Ewen was enamoured on that day in 2015, he remembers. Now, he wears a jacket bearing the phrase, "Country Skies. City Ties," on the back.
He's mayor of the rural municipality of Ritchot, which includes Ile de Chênes.
"I saw great potential for not just my business, but what could be in this little community — it's close enough to Winnipeg, but far enough away where it could become its own entity, essentially," said Ewen, who previously ran a coffee shop in the community.
Ile des Chênes would become a case study in how bedroom communities are thriving in the shadows of Winnipeg. The towns that surround the province's capital have grown in population by 20, 25 and even 30 per cent between the 2011 and 2016 censuses.
"It's truly a remarkable thing to see Ile des Chênes growing so fast and I love being a part of it," the mayor said.
'They came out in droves'
A decade ago, Ile des Chênes was stagnant.
A planning study the municipality produced in 2009 bemoaned the exodus of young adults, families and seniors leaving the community because of the dearth of places to live.
New housing construction in Ile des Chênes was limited because the community was hemmed in by a pipeline, highway, the municipal boundary and a flooding diversion. The community's lagoon couldn't handle much expansion, anyway.
But a reprieve came at the start of the century, when Highway 59 became a four-lane thoroughfare, opening up a blank slate of land between the houses that fronted onto the old highway and the new, larger highway to the west.
The space was zoned for commercial use — but business didn't follow.
The Winnipeggers suffer perimeteritis, but we don't suffer going inside [the city].- Rural Municipality of Ritchot Mayor Chris Ewen
Dan Vermette, a real estate agent, was asked to find suitors for the real estate after two years of marginal interest.
He said inquires were slow, but then a home builder suggested the land would be better off zoned for multifamily use. The municipality agreed and the conversion occurred in 2012, setting the stage for construction of more than 200 condos and rental townhouses, north and south of Dumaine Road.
Hundreds of people would call Ile des Chênes their home before long.
"We started pre-selling units before the condo complexes could be built, so the demand was strong," said Vermette, adding similar condos were $30,000 to $40,000 pricer in Winnipeg than in Ile des Chênes.
"They came out in droves, and a lot of single people, first-time buyers," he said. "They saw the value: easy commute, cheaper taxes and they were attracted to small-town living."
According to the 2016 census, the population of Ile des Chênes leapt by 25 per cent from 2011 to more than 1,528 people. That population is younger, at an average of 35.4 years old, than the provincial average of 39.2.
After the homebuyers came the commercial businesses: a Subway, hardware store and a Thai eatery emerged, while Co-op re-located its gas station to the newly developed west end of town.
"There's a lot of new people I don't know when I'm walking down the street," said Shane Pelletier, a longtime resident and Ile des Chênes councillor.
"You talk to the schools, they're full, which some people might not think is a good thing — but having a lot of kids in town is, to me, a great thing," Pelletier said.
"People are going to want to grow up here and live here and hopefully stay here."
'Oh, way out there?'
Mary Ann Porter has become a fixture in Ile des Chênes since joining the rush of condo buyers.
She grabs groceries for those in need, volunteers at community dinners and helps organize activities for seniors.
"I know three or four people that have moved here after I did," said Porter, who left Winnipeg five years ago in search of an affordable new condo.
"They didn't follow me. I like to think they might have, but they didn't," she said, chuckling.
"I've had people say, 'Oh, way out there?' And then they come out and they're like, 'Oh, it's not that far,' and it isn't.'"
How far, exactly, depends whom you ask.
Short drive from sprawling Winnipeg
Ile des Chênes hasn't gotten closer, but rapid development at Winnipeg's edges has brought amenities within reach. Winnipeg's Sage Creek neighbourhood is a 10-minute drive, Porter says.
One of her neighbours, Gerry Galvin, suggests it's more like eight or nine minutes.
"I'm a little farther away from Sage Creek than he is, apparently," Porter jokes.
Galvin likes the tranquility of Ile des Chênes, which is maybe ironic since, after being a Winnipeg firefighter for 30 years, he moved to Las Vegas and lived 20 minutes from the commotion of the Strip.
When they moved back to Winnipeg, he and his wife struggled to get a mortgage — their bank looked down on retirees, Galvin said.
"I like it more than I thought I would," he said of his simpler life in Ile des Chênes. "I thought I would miss the city, like being close to everything, but I don't know — I like the quietness and the people here."
He says he paid less to buy the condo than he would have in the city, while his condo fees, taxes and utilities are a fraction of what they would be in Winnipeg. Considering that, he'll take the longer commute.
"For nine to 10 miles [away], that's a pretty good investment in my books," he said.
The city's expansion toward communities like Ile des Chênes isn't a bad thing, says Ritchot Mayor Ewen.
"The Winnipeggers suffer perimeteritis, but we don't suffer going inside [the city]," he said.
"When it's a little bit closer, it makes it a lot easier for any one of us to go and do any kind of major shopping in Winnipeg."
'More opportunities for everybody'
Two-bedroom condos in Ile des Chênes were priced under $200,000 when the Galvins were buying, but are now in the $220,000 range. The average price for a Winnipeg condo is $230,000, says the Royal LePage House Survey, but that includes units considerably older than the supply in Ile des Chênes.
Marvin Cayer has put his money where his mouth is. He thought so highly of Ile des Chênes when he first toured the new developments that he bought a condo on the spot.
The truck driver doesn't mind the commute either.
"You've got thinking time before you get there," he said.
The population boom isn't confined to Ile des Chênes, though elsewhere there are fewer condominium builds and more housing starts.
In the same municipality, St. Adolphe — 10 kilometres to the southwest of Ile des Chênes — expanded its ring dike so more homes could be squeezed inside, while a new development could bring as many as 400 new homes to Grande Pointe, just north of Ile des Chênes, Ewen said.
Ritchot, at 22 per cent growth, is one of the country's fastest growing municipalities, the 2016 census said.
Others, like Oakbank — just east of Winnipeg — went from nearly 2,500 residents in the 2011 census to 4,600 people in 2016. Lorette, a few kilometres east of Ile des Chênes, jumped from 1,800 people to nearly 3,000 people.
"I believe we're still going to be one of the fastest-growing municipalities, especially in the next two or three years," says Ewen.
"I look forward to each community's development — commercially, industrially and residentially — because it just means there's more opportunities for everybody to start living in Ritchot."