Elliot Lake was on the brink of becoming of ghost town when the mines closed in the early 1990s.
Four seniors from southern Ontario are quietly sitting in the back of a mini-van as it whizzes up and down the hilly, curvy streets of Elliot Lake.
In the driver’s seat, Retirement Living tour guide Linda McKay is far from quiet.
“You’re going to feel like you’re going in circles all the time, and you’re going to get dizzy, but you’ll never get lost,” McKay tells them.
She tells the visitors, who were put up in a hotel in the town last night, about everything from the transit service to where they might spot some wild foxes.
McKay drives past the vacant lot where the mall that “collapsed on us” used to stand, referring to the Algo Centre Mall disaster that killed two women in 2012.
“Tired yet?” she asks.
“Just from climbing the hills,” says a woman from the backseat.
“Yeah, we have a couple,” McKay says with a laugh.
“Must be fun driving around here at winter time,” the woman says, sounding concerned.
“It’s not bad. They have the 24-hour road crews, they’re out, they get it sanded and it’s not really that much of an issue.”
About 2,000 people take these tours every year and about 30 per cent of them end up moving to this former mining town, about a two hour drive west of Sudbury.
Elliot Lake Retirement Living was founded to be a landlord to look after the hundreds of apartments and houses left behind by the mining companies in the early 1990s.
But it’s more important job is to market the community as an affordable place to retire, which has kept Elliot Lake alive after the mines closed up in 1996.
Marielle Brown grew up here. Her father was a miner. She was away at university when word came of the mines closing. She never thought she would move back.
When she first heard her hometown was going to reinvent itself as a retirement destination, she thought it was a “crazy idea.”
But Brown returned in 1992 to take a job with Retirement Living, where she is now the manager of marketing and sales.
“Because I’d seen our community go through very devastating times when the mines closed and it was very interesting for me to be part of sort of reinventing the economy and really that’s why I’ve stayed,” says Brown.
The town’s population has yo-yoed for decades, being as high as 25,000 at one point, but in recent years being pretty stable around 11,000.
“The way I get up in the morning is I worry about what’s going to happen to those 11,000 people,” says Brown
George Farkouh moved to Elliot Lake as a boy in 1961.
Just a few years after the boom town was founded, the price of uranium went bust and many wondered if the town would survive.
“I grew up on streets where there was nine boarded up homes and there was one with lights on. It was not a pleasant place,” he remembers.
But uranium prices went back up, the town grew in the 1970s and Farkouh was elected mayor in 1988.
On a Monday morning, about a year later, the presidents of the two local mining companies both came to his office for a surprise meeting.
They told him that the uranium still under Elliot Lake would stay there and that all the mines would close by 1996.
Farkouh once again watched houses get boarded up and people leave town.
“They would come to me and say ‘George, is there anything coming? Should I stay?’ I would say ‘Look, if you’ve got a job lined up, you should take it. Should something happen in Elliot Lake, you’re always welcome back,” he says.
Farkouh says he had to become an “activist” to save the town and latched on early to the idea of marketing Elliot Lake to seniors, at a time when few were taking about retirement housing or the aging Baby Boom.
“I would see the lights going off house by house by house and then suddenly in 1994, you started to see one light here, one light there. And literally, the lights came back on,” says Farkouh.
“I was amazed. I fell in love with it. I felt this is where I want to be,” Bill Ralph says of his first impression of Elliot Lake.
A native Newfoundlander, who lived in Toronto, he saw an ad about this retirement destination with lots of outdoor recreation activities and came to have a look.
“There was time when every street you see 12 houses for sale and now it’s hard to find a house for sale,” says the 70-year-old.
On this day he’s sitting on his back patio with Rick Montegani, who moved up from Toronto two years ago.
“House prices were crazy and somebody said ‘Hey, I’ll give you this much money for your house’ and I said ‘OK, I’m going to Elliot Lake,'” he says.
Montegani says one of the biggest adjustments for people from the south coming to Elliot Lake is the pace of daily life.
“They’re used to instantaneous services, where here you’re going to get a more personal ‘Hi, how are you?’ and they call you by name,” he says.
“It wasn’t hard to get used to.”
“Our first response was you want us to go where?”
The Lesbian motorcycle club called the Toronto Amazons that Barbara Schueler and Janice Clanfield ride in was invited to the pride celebrations in a place called Elliot Lake.
The couple were pleasantly surprised by the warm welcome they received.
After coming up for pride six years in a row, they decided to sell their downtown Toronto condo and buy a house in Elliot Lake for $225,000
“For a retired couple, particularly on fixed income, this place is heaven,” says Clanfield.
She says they’ve continued to feel right at home in the last year and tell their LGBT friends in Toronto to not be nervous about retiring in this former mining town.
“Nobody cares about the gays. And I guess that’s the way it actually should be. Nobody cares if you’re gay. They’ve got other things to worry about,” says Clanfield.
“The biggest discussions we have do centre around security,” says Schueler. “‘Is it OK? Are the people alright?'”
While in the past Elliot Lake targeted older seniors, they are now getting younger retirees in their 50s, who are interested in staying active and getting involved as a volunteer in their new community.
Janet Whissell moved here last year from Espanola, another small northern Ontario town just down the road, but she says the cost of the living is still significantly lower in Elliot Lake.
The 75-year-old says it didn’t take long to feel at home.
“Just on this street there are 16 people that walk their animals every day on this crescent. And almost three times a day. So you get to know your neighbours,” says Whissell.
Dan Marchisella grew up in Elliot Lake wanting to be a miner, like his father.
“The amount of money that miners were making for the cost of living here, was exponential. Everybody had a very comfortable lifestyle. A lot of happy families here,” he remembers.
But that dream ended when soon after he started high school, the announcement came that the mines would close forver.
“All of a sudden there was this necessity to have to leave Elliot Lake. It changed a lot of people’s lives,” says Marchisella.
“A lot of the families disappeared and a lot of your friends disappeared.”
He ended up in the military and a few years ago moved back to his hometown and was elected mayor.
Marchisella thought it was “a joke” when he first heard the idea, but now credits Retirement Living with saving the town.
Although now he says his focus is on diversifying the economy, encouraging small industries and making Elliot Lake a well-rounded community and not a one horse town.