Fort Frances is getting older and that could mean big problems for the local business community down the road.
According to the 2001 census results released last week, and first reported in the July 16th edition of the Daily Bulletin, the median age of residents in Fort Frances is now 40.2—up from 36.2 in 1996.
Statistics Canada defines the median age as the point where one-half of the population is older than the median age and one-half is younger.
Fort Frances isn’t alone in facing an aging population. The median age for Ontario jumped to 37.2 from 35.2 and, nationally, to 37.6 from 35.3 over the past five years.
“It’s a double-edged sword. Forty is not that old but it is going in that direction,” Mayor Glenn Witherspoon said Tuesday.
“We are aware of the trend and are already working at ways to retain young people with the government of the day,” the mayor added, noting that the regional “Smart Growth” panel he chairs has been actively searching for answers to this and other problems facing the north.
“I wasn’t surprised [that the average age was getting older] but I was surprised it jumped that much,” Roberta Oliver, president of the Fort Frances Chamber of Commerce, admitted Tuesday.
Oliver said one of the biggest problems is retaining young people.
“I think it is a major problem that Fort Frances doesn’t have industry to keep young people here,” she remarked. “They’re going away to school and they don’t really have a reason to come back.”
Oliver said the region has to focus on attracting businesses such as telecommunications and electronics to entice young people to stay here.
“I think if we can’t get these industries, we might have to recognize ourselves as a retirement community,” Oliver warned.
Towns of similar size already have focused on being a retirement haven for those looking to spend their time fishing, gardening, and relaxing by the lake in their golden years—and Oliver said this could be the only choice for Fort Frances if this aging trend continues.
Ted DeBenetti, chair of local Business Improvement Area, said he felt the aging population won’t make a huge impact on local businesses in the near future.
“The four-year difference [in median age since 1996] I don’t think . . . would change the spending habits of people much,” he said. “At 40 years old, you could have toddlers running around the house. They’re still in the family mode.
“[But] if our average age continues to rise, we’re definitely going to have to keep an eye on it,” DeBenetti agreed.
That’s because as people retire, they move to living on a fixed income and their spending pattern changes dramatically. “If we turn into a retirement community, that will have a major impact on businesses,” he said.
DeBenetti also questioned whether young people were really leaving the community at as high a rate as many assume.
“Has there actually been a study on the number of youth who have left the community and come back?” he asked.
“It is now common knowledge that youth go away to school, get a degree, and then don’t come back,” he said. “But I was talking to one person who said she was finding that a lot of her friends who went away to school have come back and are working here.”
DeBenetti suggested such a study be completed to better find answers to the aging population issue.