Newcomers buying into Kingsville for its 'quality of life'

Monday, February 15, 2016

The Windsor Star/Sarah Sacheli


KINGSVILLE — When he’s not serving cappuccino and his celebrated soups, Frank Merlihan is chatting up customers at Merli’s, his popular Main Street eatery.

Unlike most Kingsville residents who can trace their roots in the town to the United Empire Loyalists, Merlihan is a self-described “transplant.”

The former sales rep moved here from the Toronto suburb of Richmond Hill a decade ago, bought a commercial building downtown as an investment, then, three years ago, opened a restaurant in it. He estimates about 100 regular customers are big city emigrees like himself.

“I love this place,” he says of the town he now calls home.

Kingsville is basking in a renaissance that hearkens back to the late 1800s when American industrialist Hiram Walker discovered the town and built a grand waterfront hotel called the Mettawas. When Walker built a railway into town, he transformed the tiny lakefront community into a bustling summer tourist destination he touted as “away from the madding crowd.”

Merlihan said Kingsville has found its rebirth in that same slower pace of life.

“I’d have to say the vast majority of people who have moved here are beyond thrilled… They are loving the wineries. They are loving the lifestyle. They love the value for their money.”

Most, says Merlihan, are retirees or semi-retired professionals who can work from home. They’ve come from places like Vancouver, Calgary, Regina and the Greater Toronto Area where housing prices are sky high, the traffic’s insane and the pace of daily life has worn thin. They buy homes on the waterfront or build new, with money left over to fund comfortable retirements.

The numbers in which they’ve flocked to the town known for its bird sanctuary and 27-hole championship golf course are reflected in housing stats. In the past five years, the town has added 364 households, with 99 last year alone. This year, there will be far more — a 31-unit condo development is going in at the foot of Division Street South, a road slated soon for designation as a heritage conservation district. Subdivisions throughout the town are expanding — 50 new lots this year near the golf course and 30 single-family homes and 15 semi-detached in a development south of County Road 20. More lots are being serviced on former orchard lands, and 30 new semi-detached homes — a small development by Kingsville’s new standards — are under construction on Division Street North.

“Lots are going so fast,” says Kingsville Mayor Nelson Santos, who also sells real estate.

The total construction value of residential development in 2015 topped $31 million. That’s an average of more than $300,000 per house.

The town is also building affordable housing, Santos said. A 10-unit building is under construction to address the regional social service department’s waiting list of seniors needing public housing. Kingsville built another such project last year.

Santos said he is looking forward to the 2016 census, which he expects will show his municipality again is one of the fastest-growing in the region. “I think it’s pretty safe to say we will grow to over 22,000 by the time this year’s census is counted.” With population increases topping five per cent in the past decade, Kingsville’s growth is keeping pace with much larger centres despite modest growth in commercial and industrial investment.

According to an annual survey by the County of Essex, Kingsville has the lowest property taxes when water and sewage rates are factored in. Affordability is part of the “array of different dynamics” working in the town’s favour, Santos says.

Over the next five years, the town will invest $5 million in its waterfront. The first phase includes a garden and gazebo along Park Street. The town purchased the recently closed Kings Landing restaurant on the site and plans to restore it to its 1886 grandeur when it was an inn called the Grovedale House. The town-owned pavilion in nearby Lakeside Park is booked solid, so Kingsville could use more banquet space it can rent out, says Santos.

The pocket of parkland could turn into a destination for weddings. Later phases of the waterfront redevelopment include a boardwalk out to a pergola-covered platform on Lake Erie with seating for more than 100. You could be married out on the water, then return to the Grovedale for your reception.

The town will spend $1.9 million this year on what it calls “active transportation” — completing a route of bike paths that will allow people to cycle safely in town. This year’s spending includes extending the Division Road bike lane all the way to Highway 3 and connecting Albuna Townline on the town’s easternmost border to Dimenna Drive. Another path is planned along County Road 50, connecting Cull Drive with the town’s Cedarhurst Park near its marina across from Cedar Island.

And this year, it will open its first dog park.

The town’s experiments to draw visitors with quaint events like a folk festival and night markets have worked. Restaurants were packed and retailers extended their business hours to meet customer demand.

Kingsville’s downtown district doesn’t resemble a gap-toothed smile of closed storefronts like those neighbouring municipalities struggle with. “There aren’t a lot of openings,” says Santos. “We don’t have a lot of franchises, big names, and people like that.”

Merlihan said the town has already figured out how to entice retirees. It needs to do the same with young families.

“Yes, by all means, let’s appeal to the moneyed clientele, but there are 30-year-olds who are reaching the point of frustration in Toronto with never being able to own a home,” luring them to Kingsville to launch startups or work from home would balance the town’s greying demographic, said the restaurateur.

Santos says the town is trying to increase employment opportunities. Greenhouses continue to grow, with $12 million worth of new building permits issued in 2015.

The town recently suspended development charges on industrial lands, or what it calls “employment lands.” That lured one small plant that relocated from Leamington and expanded its operation in Kingsville.

Santos said running the town is about finding “a balance.” Amalgamated with the townships of Gosfield North and Gosfield South in 1998, Kingsville has a second downtown in Cottam. Santos said the town is considering a program of incentives to combat empty storefronts there to make it as vibrant as Main Street.

“We’re drawing more people with housing and park space,” said Santos.

“We’re creating a quality of life.”