The above photograph is entitled simply Wasaga Beach by Slow Dance Tokyo. The photograph at the bottom of this post is entitled A Dull Day in Collingwood. It is by Alex Murphy. Both are used in accordance with their Creative Commons licenses.
North of Stayner, Highway 26 descends gradually toward Georgian Bay, but the road is busier here than it has been since I left Brampton. The fields around Stayner give way to cottages and cottage-related businesses. This isn’t a town in the conventional sense of the term. Many of the residents have home addresses in the Greater Toronto Area.
“As a town, we’re just over thirty years old. We encompass a number of small cottage communities that have grown together along Highway 26 and Moseley Street,” says Bonnie Smith, Economic Development Officer for the Town of Wasaga Beach.
Wasaga Beach boasts the world’s longest freshwater beach, with 14 kilometres of white sand, and it has long been a destination for Torontonians on summer getaways.
“Our biggest draw is our beach,” she adds. “Around that, we have a water park, go-carts, mini-golf. Outside the town, we have the Rounds Ranch with horseback riding. And of course there are boating opportunities, and fishing as well.”
Wasaga Beach exists for recreation. There are no smokestack industries and the economy is dependent on tourism. However, the town is diversifying itself so that it can draw tourists year round.
“We have a lot of trails — miles of them, for biking, hiking, cross-country skiing, snowshoeing and snowmobiling,” says Smith. “Most of this is part of the Ganaraska trail and is maintained by the Wasaga Beach Provincial Park, which occupies a third of our town.”
There is also a growing full-time population living in Wasaga Beach and working elsewhere
“After recreation and tourism, construction comes next in terms of our biggest industries,” says Smith. “We are the fastest growing area in the province; a lot of people move here, most of them either retired, semi-retired, or young families. A number of people commute to the Honda factory in Allison or to jobs in Barrie. People are moving here because of the lifestyle.”
The beach is to the east of Highway 26, as is Wasaga Beach Provincial Park. Moseley Street, the main street of Wasaga Beach, breaks off from Highway 26 near the Georgian Bay shore, and another fifteen minute drive takes you to the old part of town. Highway 26, in the west end of town, serves old cottage communities that are sequestered away from prying eyes.
“You will see a lot of the old cottages coming down and a lot of huge homes going up,” says Smith. “There are also new subdivisions to the south of the river and a number of gated retirement communities. We’ve started serving the town with water and sewer and that’s supported a lot of growth, though there are still issues for us to deal with.”
Old and new subdivisions hide behind rows of trees between Highway 26 and Georgian Bay. Glimpses of the lake are rare and have to be taken cautiously, lest I rear-end the car in front of me. The province is thinking of building a bypass for Highway 26 around the cottages and Moseley Street intersection. The proposed roadway includes a highway off-ramp onto the road to Collingwood’s regional airport.
A part of me hopes that the off-ramp does not materialize, since this stretch of Airport Road would no longer be country road but a divided highway. You can’t live along a divided highway the way you can on a road, and for me, that would end this stretch’s existence as a road.
At the eastern edge of Collingwood, Highway 26 takes a right turn at an intersection, and the descendant of Airport Road continues into town as Hume Street.
Collingwood is an old town built up around a diversity of industries. There are pre-war and older neighbourhoods abutting Hume Street, and mature trees. Where Wasaga Beach was oriented toward its beach, Collingwood straddles water and land. The Niagara Escarpment rises around the west end of town, providing a rugged backdrop to a town that has worked hard to survive.
“Collingwood was incorporated in 1858,” says Catherine Durrant, Economic Director for the Town of Collingwood. “We used to be the railhead of Ontario, and the harbour was the shipping point for goods destined to Western Canada. There were drydocks and repair facilities. They are no longer in operation, but our manufacturing sector is still one of our strongest employers.”
The shipyards closed in 1986, but in the same year the company Magna Lemmerz opened an auto parts manufacturing facility. Recently, Collingwood has developed a knowledge-based sector, and the town imports around 50% of its labour force for all sectors from the surrounding towns and townships. “Labour mobility is very strong in the Collingwood region,” says Durrant.
The historic economic heft of Collingwood manifests itself in a downtown full of turn-of-the-century brick buildings that have been lovingly restored. A walk along Hurontario Street takes you past many boutiques and restaurants, all housed in buildings of warm brick that neither tower over the pedestrian, nor pull away in fear. It’s an easy stroll to the Georgian Bay shore for a view that’s worth the trip on its own.
“It’s one of the first municipalities designated by the federal government as a heritage area,” says Durrant, “so there are strict guidelines for development. We’re retaining the look and feel of the downtown. It all has to be really eye appealing and complementing foot traffic.”
“There’s a lot of redevelopment in the downtown core,” she adds. “We’re working closely for the intensification of that sector to bring in more residential and professional offices. We have a strong Downtown Business Improvement Association. We’ve also expanded the downtown’s boundaries so it can grow.”
“Like any other municipality, we’ve had to work to ensure there were adequate services available at the hospital that serves the region,” says Durrant. “One of our biggest challenges has been retaining our rail infrastructure. We worked with Canadian Pacific for almost a decade to ensure we could retain rail service, and we finally partnered with the City of Barrie to buy the rail line destined for abandonment, creating the Barrie Collingwood Railway or BCRY.”
Hume Street itself has seen little of Collingwood’s tourism boom. I pass a Tim Horton’s, a row of auto dealerships and industrial buildings built after the Second World War. The street ends abruptly at Hurontario Street, just south of Collingwood’s downtown. My long drive is at an end, and all I can do is park and walk north.
Durrant makes no apologies. “Hume Street is expanding into a commercial area. The hospital is located there, and it extends the commercial area to the east. It supports not just commercial development but a strong industrial sector as well. You need to ensure, in any sustainable community, that you have a variety of homes, a good retail pull, employment and a good strong labour force.”
So, the road that has borne the names Scarlett Road, Dixon Road, Airport Road, Highway 26 and Hume Street, ends as it began, without ceremony, and little indication of the stories of the places it passes along its lengthy route.
All the better to protect its secrets.