Growing pains Part 1: Is Centre Wellington in danger of losing its small town charm?

·7 min read

Elora has been called Ontario’s most beautiful village. Sister city Fergus also gets high praise for its historical look and location on the Grand River.

Known for cultural events like Riverfest and the Fergus Highland Games, visitors have flocked to experience the quintessential small town charm the area has to offer.

It’s a source of pride for locals too who live in the amalgamated Township of Centre Wellington.

But that small town charm may be in jeopardy as those looking for a better deal on a home are finding out Fergus and Elora are viable options.

Data from the Guelph and District Realtors Association shows the benchmark price for a single family home in Guelph was $743,000 in February. In Centre Wellington it was nearly $100,000 less at $658,000.

Guelph’s Camryn Worrall is one of those who has been drawn to Fergus in search of housing after being discouraged by the competitiveness in Guelph.

“The house prices started skyrocketing and we were getting outbid aggressively by GTA people and we realized we couldn’t really afford to buy a place in Guelph that was what we were looking for,” Worrall said.

“We kind of really just fell in love with the downtown of Fergus and the fact that it’s still so close to Guelph ... but with a little less of the day to day chaos that’s starting to be Guelph.”

Worrall moved to Fergus at the end of March but will be far from the only one migrating to Wellington Country in the near future.

Wellington County has been mandated to grow by the province through the Growth Plan for the Greater Golden Horseshoe and the County of Wellington’s Official Plan states the county will be a community of 140,000 people by 2041, up from around 96,000 in 2016.

Sarah Wilhelm, County of Wellington manager of policy planning, explained this number comes from the province and is then allocated by the county to member municipalities where it makes sense.

Centre Wellington will be taking on a bulk of this in its urban centres of Fergus and Elora.

The County Official Plan put Elora’s population at 7,500 in 2016 which will grow to 12,000 by 2036 and then to 13,000 in 2041.

Fergus is expected to more than double over the next 20 years. The official plan put its population at 15,000 in 2016, which is projected to go up to 29,000 in 2036, then to 31,500 by 2041.

Wilhelm said Centre Wellington towns have historically been a place where they allocate a lot of the growth.

“A lot of that is where they’re situated within the county and it’s a highly desirable place to be,” Wilhelm said.

People from larger towns are liking what they see when looking at houses in Fergus and Elora.

At open houses he did before COVID, Alex MacDonald from Centre Wellington-based Edge Realty group said about half the buyers are from larger cities with Guelph, Brampton, Georgetown and Milton as the most common ones.

These buyers tell him they are looking for a better price home than in the GTA and they also enjoy the quiet small town atmosphere.

“One of the interesting comments that I’ve heard many times ... people looking at Fergus say that Fergus feels like Milton and Georgetown did 20 years ago,” MacDonald said. “It’s almost a nostalgic thing for them, coming back to what their hometown used to be like.”

MacDonald said these buyers are usually more competitive with their bids.

Although Centre Wellington is more affordable, MacDonald has seen the average price of a freehold home double in his five years of real estate in the area.

Pat Mestern, who lives in an old home on St. David Street, had a man come to her door recently, interested in buying the home she shares with her husband.

“He said ‘here’s a cheque for $800,000 no questions asked,’” Mestern explained.

Mestern showed him the door.

She wondered if he was interested in the quarter-acre land on the property more than her house with an eye toward perhaps building more housing.

The 79-year-old has lived in Fergus her whole life.

She can recall the days when downtown Fergus consisted of mainly essential stores and wasn’t geared towards tourism.

“It was always a place where you went to meet people,” Mestern said.

It was always busy with families and neighbours meeting or running into each other during errands.

Mestern noted some growth began in the 1970s — which she figured was mostly the next generation buying houses in their hometown — but then she began to see more faces and names she didn’t recognize.

She is noticing there is becoming a greater divide between newer and long-term residents.

Mestern said she feels there are some that aren’t fitting well in the community because people may not be getting the chance to meet them unless they have children in school.

“In a lot of cases, they don’t go to the festival or local theatre...the various events and festivals they just would not go because they’re really busy driving back and forth to wherever they work,” Mestern said.

“They have no connection or ties to the community so they have no reason to really support it.”

Mestern’s grown children have all moved away and she said they don’t wish to move back because for them Fergus is already too large.

Mestern said she sees keeping history and heritage alive as crucial to keeping the small town charm alive.

“When Fergus was Fergus, before it was the Township of Centre Wellington, there were those people that really fought to keep the heritage,” Mestern said. “When it became the Township of Centre Wellington, everything went out the window

Although town councillor Bob Foster had some brief periods of living elsewhere, Fergus has always been home to him.

He said there is a lot to consider when it comes to this growth in town but sees heritage as a top priority to avoid looking like “every other community.”

“When you don’t protect your heritage areas and you let them be destroyed, you’re no longer a small town,” Foster said. “If we don’t preserve them, you turn into Brampton and the very thing that’s attracting people here, you lose it.”

He explained there are designated heritage areas in Elora and Fergus which the township is obligated by law to protect.

He said he hopes the township takes lessons from nearby cities that he said didn’t manage growth well.

He recalled as a child playing hockey and lacrosse against teams in Streetsville, which he said is a town that reminded him much of Fergus.

Streetsville was eventually amalgamated into the large City of Mississauga along with other nearby towns and townships.

“Does that sound familiar at all?” Foster said, in reference to Centre Wellington being an amalgamation of Elora, Fergus, Nichol Township and parts of West Garafraxa and Eramosa.

Eventually he saw Streetsville and other nearby towns lose their separate identities.

“When you drive around Mississauga today, there’s nothing left of Cooksville, there’s very little left of Streetsville, Port Credit is a little nicer but that’s because it’s right on the lake,” Foster said.

“They lost a lot of the small town feel. Right around us we have examples of what not to do and what they didn’t do is preserve their heritage districts.”

Wayne Caldwell, a University of Guelph professor of rural planning and development, said heritage preservation can be a powerful tool to keeping a small town identity.

Caldwell said this speaks largely to planning, having a strong vision for the community, maintaining walkability and supporting organizations that work toward these goals.

“I think with concerted effort and attention to it and thinking about these things, a community can do lots to retain that feel and that charm,” Caldwell said. “But if it’s just left to the wind...then there is a risk of the community evolving into something that people might not aspire to.”

Keegan Kozolanka, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, GuelphToday.com