Disappearing act: As province booms, five towns fight decline

By Phil Tank, The StarPhoenix October 18, 2013 - While the Saskatoon region bursts with unprecedented growth, some villages near the city are experiencing a population decline. The Star-Phoenix visited five of these communities to get their stories.

Saskatchewan's tiniest town is shrinking.

This community about 100 kilometres southwest of Saskatoon and about 15 kilometres northeast of Rosetown achieved town status in 1910 with a population of 264, and never got much closer to the 500 people it would need to be considered a Saskatchewan town today.

Now, while communities closer to Saskatoon are experiencing double-digit growth and turning from towns into cities and from villages into towns, Zealandia has been declining for a decade. In the 2011 census, its population dropped to 80 from 90 in 2006 (an 11.9 per cent decline) after a previous decline from 111 in 2001 (18.9 per cent).

"I hate to see this town die," said Phil Donkers, who was busy renovating his house this month. "I don't think it can get any worse. It's got to start getting better."

Donkers, who is semi-retired, has lived in Zealandia for about a year and a half. His wife commutes to work in Saskatoon and they are committed to staying in the community.

His biggest complaint is the auto wrecking yard along a stretch of Highway 7 next to the entrance to the town, which he calls a "disaster" and an "eyesore."

In addition to what looks like an auto graveyard, the town rink has been dormant for a year due to a lack of volunteers. The inside of the Zealandia Recreation Centre is littered with empty beer cans and bottles. The Zealandia Zippers dressing room is strewn with broken glass and bottle caps. Nearby, a softball field is overgrown with grass and weeds.

Optimism, however, has not melted away like the rink's ice.

"We feel like we're going the other way," said town clerk Lynn Farquharson, who used to run the grocery store before it closed in the early 1980s. "We'll never get storefronts and businesses again because Rosetown's too close."

Farquharson said the town hired its first bylaw enforcement officer three years ago to help keep the town clean. The town has also recently sold some plots of land with the stipulation that building must start within two years.

"If they do what they say they're going to do, we could see some expansion," Farquharson said.

Unlike some of the five communities The StarPhoenix toured this month, the United church in Zealandia is still operating. "It's squeaking by," Farquharson said.

The grain elevator has been transformed into a plant for processing pulse crops, and the SaskTel cellphone tower seems somewhat out of place near other signs of decline.

Despite efforts to reverse this slide, Prof. Rose Olfert of the University of Saskatchewan's Johnson-Shoyama Graduate School of Public Policy said shrinking rural villages are fighting a trend toward urbanization that's taking place all over the planet.

"They are likely to eventually disappear," Olfert said in an interview. "They don't decline very rapidly. It's a long, slow process."

Between 2006 and 2011, census numbers show Saskatchewan villages grew by 4.7 per cent, while towns grew by eight per cent and cities expanded by 8.7 per cent. Saskatoon grew by 11.4 per cent. Rural municipalities suffered a slight decline. Larger farms, and shrinking numbers of farmers, have altered the provincial landscape.

That doesn't change the affection some people feel for the lifestyle small communities offer.

"We have terrific neighbours," Donkers said, "and there's terrific people here."


Veronica Prokopiw apologized for not having her restaurant completely decked out in Halloween gear on a recent October day, even though it's tough to imagine a more thorough effort.

There were even toy spiders stuck on the front door.

Prokopiw's Terrace Dining Room stood out as a business making an effort - and seeing it pay off - amid the closed doors, dilapidated buildings and fading signs of other failed businesses in shrinking villages. A lot of her customers come from out of town, Prokopiw said as people lined up to pay for their lunches.

Broderick, just east of Outlook on Highway 15, is home to a potato plant. That didn't stop the village of 71 from losing 15 per cent of its residents from 2001 to 2011.

"The new mayor is trying to grow it bigger," Prokopiw said. "The only thing I told him is, before we get bigger, fix what we have."

Infrastructure is an obvious problem for tiny communities that are getting smaller.

"We need to improve our roads and things like that," said Mayor Randy Downton, who added the village has money in the bank. Downton, who was elected about a year ago, said he thinks people have left Broderick for nearby Outlook.

However, he believes Broderick can attract people with its low taxes and low housing costs. You can buy a 1,000-square-foot bungalow for $150,000.

Downton said his village, which has burned twice in its century of history, can also rebound from its current crisis.

"This is just an amazing little community," Downton said as he took a break from renovating his house.

"We've got lots of room for growth."


Want to buy a church? A shuttered United church in this community of about 50 people is for sale as a residence. The asking price is $130,000, and it's advertised as having two bedrooms and two bathrooms.

"I've seen so many of our rural assets fade away, unfortunately," Hawarden postmaster Janelle Christiansen said. She was born and raised in Hawarden, which is between Outlook and Kenaston, about 10 kilometres south of Highway 15.

Christiansen returned to her home village from Saskatoon to take over the job previously held by both her father and mother. The family used to run a hardware store connected to the post office. Like the other villages, the Hawarden post office is the only enterprise that is reliably open during business hours.

"I would like to see it flourish again," Christiansen said. Her Scandinavian accent, which tells the story of the community's roots, remains strong - think Frances McDormand in the film Fargo.

Rescuing the village from decline, however, could prove difficult. From 2006 to 2011, Hawarden, which celebrated its 100th anniversary in 2009, lost one-third of its residents.

"We're all sort of struggling with how to address things," said village clerk Barbara Martin, who is the fourth person to occupy the position in the last three years. The new mayor and council were elected last fall.

Martin does not believe the census numbers are "all that statistically meaningful." She said most habitable properties in the village have someone living in them. Many houses have been demolished over the years, too.

Right across from the village office is a closed store - KC Lucky Dollar - that's used for storage. A heritage property once housed a Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce. Christiansen said the bank vault is still inside the building.

Martin recalled wistfully that there was once an ice cream parlour in the village, but she's realistic about attracting future businesses.

"That would be a very difficult thing to do at this point," she said. "We have to resign ourself to just being a place where people live."

Like many, Martin drives about an hour into Saskatoon to shop.

Prof. Rose Olfert of the University of Saskatchewan's Johnson-Shoyama Graduate School of Public Policy said disappearing businesses reflect the choices of people in the community.

"They understand where they're spending their income, and it's not in the local community to keep it going," Olfert said.

There are some who see a future in Hawarden, however. Someone from China recently bought the local hotel - which, like many such businesses in these villages, is really a bar with limited operating hours.

"The only people who have any interest in buying businesses in town are people from China," Martin said. "I guess they see more potential than we do."


"People thought we were crazy when we decided to renovate," said Kathy Haapala, who lives with her husband and children in this community on Highway 219, about 10 kilometres east of Outlook.

The Haapalas' modern-looking house stands out among the mostly weathered homes in Glenside, which lost a third of its people between 2006 and 2011, when just 59 people called the village home.

Haapala said she knows they will never get out of their home the money they put into it. They didn't do it for the resale value. They love living here.

"You kind of have a country life, too, but a little bit of town," she said.

However, they spend a lot of time on the road. Haapala's husband, Murray, commutes 50 minutes each way to his job at KPMG in Saskatoon. All of their shopping is done in Outlook, where their children also go to school.

"There's just no business here," Haapala said.

At the other end of the Glenside housing spectrum is the shack John Peters bought for $500 five years ago. Peters, 69, had to connect the electricity. He plans to tear down the structure and replace it with a trailer.

There are three or four empty houses in the village, and of the few that have sold recently, the sellers did not get the price they were seeking, he said.

"There aren't too many people here that are staying here," said Peters, who is semi-retired but helped local farmers with their harvest well into the night earlier this month.

Of those in town who still work, almost all do so out of town, he said.

"Once they're in a state of decline, it's hard to reverse that," said Prof. Bob Patrick, chair of the University of Saskatchewan's regional and urban planning program.

Patrick said growth in a nearby community can help spur decline in a centre. Outlook grew by 13.7 per cent from 2006 to 2011.

"You have winners and losers, and the next nearest town might be gaining from this," he said.


The swinging Bill's Collectables sign made an eerie creaking noise on a windy day in early October outside a building that was also once a menswear store and a shoe store. Now, the building is used for storage. Abandoned vintage gas pumps sit on either side.

Don't tell Bladworth Mayor Ron Bessey his community is getting smaller.

"We haven't lost a damn thing for the last 20 years," said Bessey, who has been mayor for that time span and was born and raised in Bladworth. "It might go up and down from census to census."

Bladworth, which lies about 98 kilometres south of Saskatoon off the busy Highway 11, dipped to 60 people in the 2011 census from 70 in 2006. A closed school that was built in the early 1960s but only operated for a few years is a symbol of the optimism that once permeated the village.

Bessey said the village has sold six or seven lots, and two new buildings are under construction. The village has torn down many of the old abandoned structures that lent a sense of despair to the community. A note at the post office touts how much recyclable material has been saved from the landfill - 3,106 kilograms.

The village also hosts hunters in the fall.

"Everybody's got better-paying jobs," said Bessey, who also works in nearby Davidson.

When Glenn Anderson moved to Bladworth six years ago because rent in the city got too expensive, he bought an 800-square-foot home for $4,000.

The semi-retired cook has trouble finding consistent employment, but that doesn't diminish his enthusiasm for the place he calls home.

"I love it here," Anderson said. "It's friendly. Everybody knows everybody."

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