Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Requiem for a small town

Collingwood, Ontario, used to be a run-of-the mill ski town. Its main industry, up until the 1970s, was shipbuilding. But when that went into decline, taking many high-paying jobs with it, Collingwood literally hit the skids. And finding a replacement wasn't easy -- tourism started to take root, but it was tough sledding converting the dingy old port town into a shiny new attraction. When I first started going there to snowboard in the mid-1990s, it was, as they say, "grassroots." That was its charm.

Amy and I found ourselves in Collingwood last weekend to hit the slopes at Blue Mountain, the ski resort just outside of town, after closing the deal on our first home. After more than four weeks of cutthroat big-city real estate, it was a welcome retreat.

And for the most part it was just what we needed. In February in the shadow of the Niagara Escarpment, you can find what amounts to a naturalist's winter playground. Rabbits and deer abound, snowdrifts pile up as high as the car window and, just to the north, Georgian Bay quietly slumbers under a sheet of thick, creaking, snow-covered ice.

But you can also catch, from up on that limestone ridge, a glimpse of the future for many rural communities -- and it doesn't look good. A rim of semi-detached developments with names like "Lighthouse Point" now envelop Collingwood in what seems to be a totally unplanned fashion, consuming vast amounts of precious forest. "Intensification," it seems, is a concept totally lost on Collingwood's developers. Traffic congestion is rampant, and the town's infrastructure is almost audibly groaning under the strain of a rush of new residents, many of whom are retirees in need of a lot of public services.

Collingwood's consumption craze came to us in the form of a snappily dressed pitchwoman from Intrawest, the corporation that owns Blue Mountain, along with many of Canada's major ski resorts (Whistler and Mont Tremblant among them). Wrapped in a full-length North Face coat, she offered lip balm to the chapped masses huddled around the open fire that's kept constantly burning in the middle the resort village square.

Taking a stick, of course, triggered the spiel. Why drive all the way from Toronto, she asked plaintively, when you could simply buy a condo in one of the lovely communities that are going up all over town? She would, of course, be happy to give us all the information we needed.

What ever happened to the days when you could just bring your lunch in a cooler and ski?

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