Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Saving a town house by house

Group built homes to rescue Elkhorn

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ELKHORN -- This village had early signs of "dying town syndrome."

Some houses were boarded up. People feared losing the school and ice rink if depopulation continued.

Then in 2007, while the village celebrated its 125th anniversary, council offered six town lots for sale at the bargain price of $1.25 each. There were no takers.

"The community was starting to stagnate," said Ron Canart, a farmer in the area.

So eight guys who grew up in Elkhorn and still live in the area, including Canart, put together a plan. They pooled together about $160,000 of their own money to use as leverage to build new homes in town.

The thinking was no one would move to a new town if housing wasn't available. Newcomers wouldn't buy up a boarded-up home and look for contractors to build a new house. Neither were developers likely to view Elkhorn as the next Waverley West.

So they set up the not-for-profit Elkhorn Development Corporation and borrowed from the local Sunrise Credit Union and CIBC (one of only three CIBC branches in a Western Canada town this size; others are in Blaine Lake, Sask., and Rouleau, Sask, where the TV show Corner Gas was shot).

They bought up derelict houses in town or obtained them through tax sales, had them demolished and began building anew.

In three years, the group has funded construction of 10 new houses. Nine have been sold and three more are in the process of being built. The group was bestowed the 2010 Capturing Opportunities Award for economic development -- provincial recognition for outstanding achievement by a rural venture. One provincial official called the endeavour "outstanding," adding "they still continue to shake and move things."

Not bad for a town of just 450 people. "It's really changed the thinking of folks and how we feel about the community," said Brent Reid, corporation chairman.

Elkhorn is the last stop on the Trans-Canada Highway before you fall off the end of the Earth, i.e., enter Saskatchewan. (Take that, Rider fans.)

Of course, it's also the first fully serviced town (less than 20 kilometres from the Saskatchewan border) when you return from wherever it was you went, homesick to death for level -- not flat -- prairie; level lakes, or slightly serrated by summer breezes; and level-headed people, albeit with annoyingly divergent political views.

Of course, housing won't do it alone. Elkhorn needs jobs to attract people. It lost about 60 people in the past decade.

But oil drilling is moving ever nearer from the Virden fields and is expected to arrive on Elkhorn's boundary within five to 10 years. In fact, some buyers of the corporation's houses work in the oilpatch.

As well, the potash mines at Rocanville, Sask., are going strong. About a dozen people in Elkhorn work at the potash mine. Canart said wages there can exceed $40 an hour. There are local employers, too, like Tutthill Construction, an oil pipeline company.

Other communities are phoning the Elkhorn Development Corp. to learn how it did it.

Local people pooled both knowledge and resources. For example, chairman Brent Reid is formerly with the Business Development Bank of Canada, where he oversaw economic development for Alberta, British Columbia and the Yukon. He moved back to Elkhorn after retirement. Also, Ron Canart's daughter, Christina, who studied rural economic development at the University of Saskatchewan, drafted a plan for the group. A local woman, with expertise in interior decorating, sets down the house designs.

No directors can profit from the corporation although their return on investment is 4.5 per cent interest, the same interest the corporation pays on loan from the credit union.

The homes are sold virtually at cost, in the $180,000 to $250,000 range. Houses range up to just over 1,400 square feet. "Our goal is not to make money. Our goal is to have people live in the community," said Canart.

In tax sales, the arrears are written off but the development corporation has to pay any new taxes.

Retirees as well as young families are buying homes. The corporation has received phone calls from places like Lethbridge and Victoria from people interested in returning to the area.

"With all the oil activity in the area, and upgrades to the potash plant, it's perfect timing," said Elkhorn Mayor Roland Gagnon.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 6, 2011 0

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