There’s evidence the 2021 census Sarnians are filling out right now will confirm the city is undergoing a growth spurt.
“We’re at a very interesting point in time when we’re seeing local conditions change,” says Stacey Forfar, the city’s director of community services.
Pre-pandemic projections had Sarnia’s population growing 1% to 3% a year, a small amount that would see a minor bump to 74,045 residents by 2031.
But the impact of COVID-19 appears to be attracting an unexpected number of new families and younger couples to Sarnia, in addition to a steady stream of retirees.
Realtor Rob Longo says he’s convinced the local population is surging after a long drought. The last census in 2016 showed Sarnia’s population had actually shrunk 1.1% to 71,594 from 73,044 five years earlier.
Longo, president of the Sarnia-Lambton Real Estate Board, is certain that has turned around.
Up to 20% of local homes are being sold to people from outside the area, he said.
“That’s far more than we’ve seen previously,” he said. “And there’s fewer leaving. They’re choosing to stay because jobs now aren’t geographically specific.
“There’s the option to work remotely and a lot of people want to live in smaller communities like ours.”
Longo tells the story of a young couple with two children “cooped up” in a smaller home in Kitchener last summer who saw an article about Sarnia’s great beaches.
“They’d never been here before and took a day trip to Canatara Beach just to get out of the house.
“They drove around and saw what a beautiful community we have and decided to move here.”
And that’s not an uncommon scenario, he said.
“From talking to realtors across Lambton County, I hear that homes are selling to people moving from Niagara, Burlington, Kitchener, Windsor, even London.”
Longo said there’s a ripple effect as homeowners in bigger cities seek out less expensive homes in more rural areas.
The large apartment complexes under construction in Sarnia are likely to attract retirees and couples, and leave more single residential home available for families new to the area.
With a median selling price of $430,000 last month, Sarnia’s housing values are rising rapidly but are still lower than most other centres, Longo said.
A new report to city council forecasts Sarnia’s population will increase to 87,000 by 2051 with an additional 8,662 jobs, far more optimistic than previous projections.
The report was commissioned so city officials can strategize about where residential growth should occur.
The consultants say it won’t be necessary to expand Sarnia’s boundaries because existing land can be rezoned from light industrial to residential. Preferred development areas include land near the Research Park on Modeland Road.
“We’re building a modern framework in anticipation of growth,” said Forfar who oversees the city’s planning department. “I don’t think Sarnia has ever gone through an exercise quite like this.”
The full report, with an explanation of city population trends, will be up for discussion at an online strategic planning meeting on May 17.