“My message always is, if a place the size of Gladstone can do this, any place can.”
– EILEEN CLARKE, GLADSTONE MAYOR AND BUSINESS OWNER WHO FINANCED CONSTRUCTION OF A 10-SUITE BUILDING, OPENED IN FEBRUARY 2009
When Gladstone’s population fell into precipitous decline a few years back, reaction initially was, “There’s nothing we can do about it.”
“It was all, ‘Gee, another person left’ and, ‘This town is falling apart,’” recalls Eileen Clarke, mayor of Gladstone. “We didn’t have a plan for how we could fix this.”
Especially distressing was the fact that not just young folk were leaving, but so were older adults, many who’d lived here for years. They were going where suitable housing for their golden years was available.
The hand-wringing might have continued. But then Gladstone signed on to the Age Friendly Manitoba Initiative.
Aimed at helping towns and villages become better places to live for older adults, this captured their interest immediately, says Clarke.
It helped them start to see a solution. One of the pillars of an age-friendly community is having multiple housing options. The more they talked it over, they realized that was what their town lacked, says Clarke.
“It gave us a focus for what we were facing and it helped us make a plan.”
SEVENTEEN NEW APARTMENTS AND SUITES
Fast-forward two years and today Gladstone has reversed its depopulation, thanks to 17 newly constructed apartments and suites, now home to a diverse and growing number of residents, including but not exclusively older adults.
They oc cupy the seven apartments contained in Gladstone’s Galloway Building, a turn-of-the-century restored downtown heritage building, plus 10 ground-floor one-and two-bedroom suites in a newly constructed complex on the south end of town.
All the new housing was privately financed by local business owners. Even as they realized housing was key to retaining and attracting residents, they knew they’d wait indefinitely if they tried pursuing grants for public housing, says Clarke.
“We knew there was no point in even asking,” said Clarke who, with her husband, financed and oversaw the construction of the 10-unit Clarkson Suites which was completed in February 2009. Clarke and her husband own Clarke’s Funeral Home of Gladstone.
The refurbishment of the suites in the town’s heritage building – located above the offices of Manitoba Agriculture, Food and Rural Initiatives’ Gladstone GO office – was also covered by the building’s owners.
Gladstone’s do-it-yourself approach has also garnered widespread interest, says Clarke. Other communities and would-be private developers frequently visit to view the facility and inquire about the feasibility of private initiatives.
Her response: if it can happen in a place the size of Gladstone, it can happen anywhere.
But those with capital to invest in something like this must be willing to wait for a return on their investment, she adds.
“It’s going to be a long time before you have returns on this,” she said, adding that tends to be what holds other private developers back.
“The business people in Gladstone who made the commitment to build these suites were more concerned with the viability and sustainability of their community.”
There’s signs of returns in that regard already.
Several new families have moved into town and bought homes that became available after people moved into the new suites, notes Clarke. Sales of homes in Gladstone are now brisk, house values are rising and other local businesses have made significant expansions.
Good-qual i ty, af fordabl e housing was among the top needs expressed during province-wide consultations under the Age Friendly Manitoba Initiative.
This need comes up virtually everywhere, said Louise Hutton, community liaison with the Centre of Aging at the University of Manitoba, which undertook consultations in 66 towns and villages participating in the Age Friendly Initiative.
Hutton spoke in Gladstone at the Association of Manitoba Municipalities’ midwestern district meeting here last month.
In an interview Hutton said in some places the shortage of suitable housing has become so acute, people say they cannot move out of their homes or off their farms because there’s simply nowhere to go.
Elkhorn has also tackled the housing shortage issue. There the village’s local development corporation drew together a group of local investors to oversee construction of six new homes in the past year and there are plans to build several more in 2010.
“Towns are getting very creative if they have some funds to do this,” Hutton said.