MAGNETAWAN – Nearly a year after the blaze that devastated the village store-owners say things are still not business as usual.
“Up until the fire I was doing okay. But because my business is not a necessity, I lost about 70 per cent of my sales,” said Ilona Charlton, owner of Summer’s Attic craft and gift shop located just up the street from the site of the fire. “Once the fire happened there was nowhere for people to sit and gather or buy groceries, so when people went elsewhere for those things, they started doing everything elsewhere.”
In the early morning hours of July 30, fire crews were called to the Downtown General Store and the neighbouring Magnetawan Inn Restaurant, which were both leveled by a suspicious blaze. The lots, located at the main intersection of the village, have been sitting empty ever since after the business owners found they couldn’t afford to rebuild.
Charlton said because of slow sales following the fire, she wasn’t able to hire anyone this summer.
She finds while seasonal residents frequently spend money locally, the permanent residents haven’t been as willing.
“If the locals don’t start spending money in their own community it will die,” she said.
“People don’t want to move somewhere that they know they have to drive an hour to get anything,” she said. “We moved here because it had all the necessities, but now that’s a detriment.”
The land where the businesses once sat is currently for sale, but Charlton said the potential business profits don’t outweigh the high asking price.
“Small rural towns need to ask the powers that be to make building costs more plausible,” she said.
According to Mayor Sam Dunnett, the Village wouldn’t be able to waive the building fees to encourage someone to purchase the land because it wouldn’t be fair to other people in the same boat. Also he said the fee schedule is set by a bylaw.
“I empathize with people,” he said. “There definitely is a difference in the economic level, but it’s such a big commitment. We need someone who truly has Magnetawan at heart.”
Dunnett said building fees wouldn’t be the deterrent for a purchaser.
“At the price that’s attached to that property and the size of structure you would need to build to make it profitable, you’re looking at $750,000 to $1-million, and that’s before you add any building fees,” he said, noting local businesses make considerably less profit over the winter months when there is less tourist activity in the area.
The Village has received about $40,000 in funding from FedNor and the Northern Ontario Heritage Fund to help cover the cost of a revitalization plan for the downtown.
For years, Carleigh Trahan has traveled from Burk’s Falls to Magnetawan Centennial Park to spend time at the beach. She said she has noticed it isn’t as busy as it usually is.
“(The fire) has really brought down tourism,” she said.
Trahan said she thinks now that there is nowhere to buy groceries, people aren’t boating to the area and are instead going in a direction where they can pick up supplies, which means they aren’t stopping to eat or shop at the other area businesses.
Brenda Fraser, owner of the local Home Hardware, said she has had less walk-in traffic this year, but overall business is going well.
“If you’re going to build something, you’re going to build it,” she said. “We’ve probably had a better year than we usually do on the building end of it. It was more noticeable in the winter.”
Fraser said there is a lot less browsing in the store, as people go to other communities to purchase groceries and have coffee, ending up making all of their stops in a single outing.
“We have a lot of seniors in the area that don’t drive, so once they’re out, they do everything since they have to get a ride,” she said. “It’s very inconvenient to have to go out of town to get groceries.”
Fraser said the area will need to pick up the slack soon because the ripple effect of the fire could deter permanent residents from purchasing homes there. In addition to the lack of amenities, she noted the threat of closure currently facing the local public school.
She said long-time cottagers notice the change, but the area could still be attractive for newcomers to the area that won’t know the difference.
One such newcomer is Torontonian Alexandra Ngan.
Ngan spent last Friday in Magnetawan with her family, including her 21-month-old son Ethan who had a great time playing in the sand at the beach.
“We like Magnetawan so much that we might even look for a cottage rental,” said Ngan. “We had a great time at the beach and only wish we could have discovered it earlier on our trip.”