Muskoka's Rural Renaissance

January 29, 2020
3
Tianna and Juniper

Milennials Living the Dream in Muskoka

In Muskoka,  and especially in the Township of Georgian Bay, residents are finding three-bedroom townhouses with Bell Fibe Gigabit speed Internet for $2,000 a month on the shores of Georgian Bay. "That is pretty cool,” says Tianna Burke, a rural millennial who made the leap and has never looked back.

This look at those who choose to live and work in our rural community was inspired by an article by Don Pittis posted in 2019 on CBC News; Signs of a rural renaissance as Canadian cities overheat.

“We definitely attract millennials to work here. The quality of life and the ability to afford to live a ‘good life now’ instead of at retirement has changed the trajectory of our economic landscape,” says Jennifer Schnier, Communications and Economics Officer for the Township of Georgian Bay.We welcome this rural renaissance because they are not coming here to work, they are coming here to live, to be active in our communities, and to build up our economy.” 

Jennifer Schnier, Communications and Economics Officer for the Township of Georgian Bay

These nimble workers are finding the careers they need to live the life they want now while at the same time satisfying their need to reduce their carbon footprint. In fact, protecting the environment is a must for more and more milennials in their quest for the ideal career and lifestyle.

Meet Tianna Burke, a Conservation Biologist at the Georgian Bay Biosphere Reserve (GBBR). Tianna comes to Muskoka with a Bachelor in Environmental Studies and a Master of Science. This educated millennial lives full time in the Township of Georgian Bay in a residential community called Oak Bay Golf and Marina Community (Oak Bay). Her head office is in Parry Sound.

Tianna lives with her fiancé Mike and was already working for the GBBR when Mike was relocated for work. Working for GBBR, a non-profit environmental charity, allowed her the mix of research and public education/outreach that she was looking for. So, when the time came for relocation, Tianna approached her employer and was encouraged to find that working from home was an option. Where she chose to live was her decision, but the end result was perfect for both employer and employee.

Ultimately Tianna and Mike wanted to live in eastern Georgian Bay, a designated UNESCO Biosphere Reserve, and found Oak Bay within the borders of Muskoka on Georgian Bay. This allowed Tianna to be 45 minutes from work (if needed), while Mike's commute was now less than 30 minutes.

Tianna is doing her part to reduce her carbon footprint, and certainly she works for an organization where that matters. “Reducing my footprint, having great internet, and being able to have a work-life balance” were her top three priorities when choosing where to live, she says. The Township of Georgian Bay was able to meet these while also allowing her to continue to work in a rural environment. "Here in the Township of Georgian Bay we believe that infrastructure such as Gig Speed Internet, well paved roads and environmental stewardship are parallel in priority," says Township of Georgian Bay Mayor Peter Koetsier.

"Our Economic Development Plan encourages staff to relentlessly pursue rural internet solutions for our residents. Having this Bell Fibe Gigabit Internet speed in some of our residents' homes on the shores of Georgian Bay is a great example of the results of our pursuits. We couldn’t be more delighted that communities like Oak Bay are being built with both the environment and the economy in mind."

Township of Georgian Bay Mayor Peter Koetsier

Prior to the Biosphere, Tianna says striking a healthy work-life balance was difficult. At just 24, she was burning out. “It’s a millennial thing," she says. "We come from a generation of people who are extremely competitive and need to overwork to be able to compete for fewer jobs. At my previous job, I found myself working 70 hours a week and still responding to emails at home. Now, that’s not what people do here, and it’s great to have an employer who cares as much about my off-time as my work time.” Now her workmates tease her for answering emails after hours, encouraging her to engage more in her community and her personal life.

She finds that in Muskoka, workplace structure is generally more relaxed. “I am not the only one working from home here. I see fellow residents who also live and work here and they have mastered the work-and-work-hard approach, but also that home time and down time is your own.”

“I am not so used to this yet, but when I pop my head out the door of my home office, I see my neighbours enjoying their days also. There are other home offices here and so I am not isolated. In fact, I often chat with neighbours when we take a break to walk our dogs,” she says.

“Moving to Port Severn, I admit we are remote, rural so to speak, but that’s a good thing; it's the change we wanted.” Amenities and urban centres are are still available. “We can still go for sushi if we want to, quite easily, actually,” she says.

So why Muskoka, and why Port Severn? “Living in the Biosphere was important, but needing to work from home made having fast internet a non-negotiable," she says. " So when Bell offered Gig Speed Fibe Internet, it made our move much easier.”

There were other non-negotiables on the list, she says. “We wanted to live outside of the urban area because our dollar can go farther. Now we are in a position to save for our own house and our wedding, and we live a pretty decent life. We have expensive hobbies, such as hunting and fishing, and we used to travel to Muskoka/Parry Sound to enjoy them. Now that we live here we can basically walk out our backdoor to enjoy those same activities.”

Here in Oak Bay, Tianna and Mike have rented a three-bedroom townhouse on Georgian Bay in Muskoka, and have Bell Fibe Gigabit Speed Internet. Their entire housing budget including utilities and internet is under $2,000. Having looked in Peterborough, Waterloo and the GTA, she says they could not find this anywhere else. Being close to work, able to maintain a work-life balance, and to save for their future has made life for these two much more relaxed.

“We have many younger families in Oak Bay purchasing and renting, who simply could not negotiate anything less than Fibe Gigabit Internet. We are so serious about this that we laid the necessary conduit into our builds to ensure that this was possible. To us, this service is just as essential as water and sewer, and we would stand for nothing less.” 

Romas Kartavicius, President of Eden Oak Development, responsible for the Oak Bay properties where Tianna lives.

Are you living the dream? “Yes we are," says Tianna, "but this was our retirement dream. We were not supposed to be here for 30 years. But when we started to look, we realized we don’t have to wait, this is our now.”

Wayne Kelly, manager of Rural Policy Learning Commons, an organization studying the attraction of the millennial to rural communities, says that Oak Bay and the Township of Georgian Bay are on the right track.

"Gigabit Internet, affordable housing, and cottage country combined is an exciting opportunity in today's economy. This type of situation should really appeal to young professionals who can work online, and Muskoka is putting together a great formula for rural development in our digital economy. In addition, Muskoka's success with gigabit service and millennials is helping change the perception of rural Canada, highlighting the fact that digital economy opportunities don't just happen in urban areas. This is a great example of assets that rural communities can put together to appeal to people in today's digital workforce. What's happening in Muskoka shows why investing in rural broadband is essential for Canada in today's economy. Once that high-speed is in place, life in rural Canada can be very appealing for digital workers."

Wayne Kelly, manager of the Rural Policy Learning Commons, an organization studying the attraction of the millennial to rural communities.

Tianna's situation was now perfect to invite a dog to the family. Insert Juniper, a young Bernese Mountain Dog, and companion to Tianna and Mike's cat, Bojangles. This little princess does not spend her day in a crate. She is with Tianna all day. “Even the dog’s quality of life is better,” Tianna says. When asked about the autonomy with this employer now that she has a dog, Tianna called it a 10/10. “The products that I provide to the GBBR are far superior to what I offered at my previous employer. Being able to flex my working hours means that I can accomplish more," she says.

Is her employer happy?

“Absolutely," says Greg Mason, Director at the GBBR. "We are pleased with the consistent products produced by Tianna, and are delighted that her carbon footprint, both by not commuting and also by not doubling her workspace, is minimal. There is no point in having an unhappy employee; nobody wins. This is a scenario we believe in. So much so that we are encouraging our other employees to follow suit. Go live where you are happy, produce a superior product. With this approach, we all win.”

Greg Mason, Director at the GBBR

Tianna can now extend her organization’s presence in the south of the Biosphere. “I’m not full time at home; I work within the community conducting environmental outreach," she says, "but when I get home, home is really home now. Its busy, but such a good busy. I am known as the Biosphere girl, and that is a huge compliment. I love all the questions I get from neighbours about the birds we are seeing or about what to do if they see a snake or bear. It’s important to me to teach on and off the job about how to live alongside wildlife.”

“I live in a community with neighbours and I engage with them, keeping in mind they moved here for the same lifestyle choice as I did. There are not a lot of people our age here... so maybe we are escaping what is expected of our generation. But our neighbours want a laid-back, fun life, and this is a place they can enjoy in their retirement. Our friends visit us and they want this life also, but it is such a leap for them to imagine. For us it’s a relief,” she says.

Mary Doyle, Co-founder of Rural on Purpose is there to help make that leap.

“More and more people want to make the move to a rural community; it’s where they go to vacation, relax and refresh. The barrier is being able to see themselves doing their work there. Will it be isolating? Will there be opportunities to connect with other professionals like them? We help communities build 'freelance friendly' environments with supports like coworking for independent professionals and remote workers, so that their work life is as fulfilling as the rest of their life. When you combine that with Gig speed internet and a fractional cost of living, relocating to a place like Muskoka becomes a compelling proposition.”

Mary Doyle, Co-founder of Rural on Purpose

You might think that this kind of life would not be possible for those in tech or industry, but with fast, reliable internet, it is. “We literally have the same internet as any urban centre," says Tianna. "Our dollar does go farther... we are living the life, or 'living the dream' as they say.” This is in large part thanks to early conversations with developers about the need for internet as a planned service. Jennifer Schnier, Georgian Bay's Communications and Economics Officer, recalls speaking with owners at Oak Bay several years earlier about Cat5 wiring, (another Internet service delivery system) as they placed that technology in their original homes. So when Bell Fibe Gigabit Internet arrived in November of 2019, she was pleased, but not surprised. "Now the Township of Georgian Bay can participate in this renaissance showcasing a competitive product in an attractive community" she says.

reducing carbon footprint

“The air really is cleaner here, the pragmatic and natural resources are here, we make eye contact with our neighbours. Yes, the large cities do offer a higher lifetime income, but for us, it is paired with a much poorer quality of life," says Mike. Many have said that this generation of millennials want everything right now, and maybe they are right. “Our right now is perfect. This was supposed to happen at the end of our careers but we are not waiting to retire to do this. We are here, living this now — under 30, and we are not leaving. Why shouldn’t we be able to have a life where we can work hard but also enjoy just as much?” he says.

Oak Bay Golf and Marina, the Township of Georgian Bay, and the Georgian Bay Biosphere Reserve, is the trilogy partnership that brought Tianna and Mike to town. Organizations like Venture Muskoka, a cohesive Muskoka Economic Development platform, have been proponents of rural internet for years. Wayne Kelly of Rural Policy Learning Commons notes that there a growing number of communities like Oak Bay all around Muskoka. Moving forward Venture Muskoka will continue to share success stories. Subscribe  to our website to stay informed.

What's next? The co-working options for freelancers and remote workers in Muskok are truly unique.The Township of Georgian Bay, Rural on Purpose other rural communities continue to welcome Tianna’s many friends whom we would encourage to “take the leap” to the north.

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Copyright Venture Muskoka 2021. We gratefully acknowledge the support of Explorers' Edge in the provision of select photographic images.