The results from the latest census began trickling in earlier this year, revealing something that we already knew anecdotally: Muskoka is attracting more year-round residents than ever before, and the same goes for the towns within it.

Between 2016 and 2021, Muskoka’s permanent population grew by 10%, outsizing what was projected for the district. Meanwhile, Huntsville -- Muskoka’s most populated town -- grew by 6.7%, adding 1,331 new permanent residents in that five-year period.

Mayor Karin Terziano tells STOREYS that the pandemic spurred big changes for Huntsville, which historically has been considered a tourist town.

“Huntsville experienced significant residential growth during COVID and many of our seasonal residents became occupants year-round. This has provided more opportunity for commercial uses to come to Huntsville,” she says. "We have had several new businesses open up, and the relocation of some existing businesses will provide opportunities for renovating [and] rehabilitating existing retail areas.”

For residents and visitors, this will mean “more variety, more stability year-round, and more employment opportunities,” adds Terziano.

In recent years, the town’s sole Canadian Tire was remodelled, increasing its size by about 30%, and renovations are underway at Huntsville Mall Place to modernize the interior. By year-end, the mall will include a new Giant Tiger and exterior access to several stores.

Earlier this summer, Huntsville also wrapped up Diggin’ Downtown, a revitalization of Main Street and Kent Park, after kicking it off in the spring of 2021.

Along with those improvements, the town has seen 30 new commercial builds over the past two years -- “and those range from self-storage buildings to brand-new commercial entities, which are standalone units,” says Christopher Nagy, Huntsville's Chief Building Officer. “We're seeing a shift from multi-level commercial buildings with interior corridors to more one-storey, larger retail complexes that are being built.”

Nagy and Terziano also confirm a new mixed-use complex -- it will contain a FreshCo, other retail entities, and restaurants -- slated for the corner of Centre Street North and Hanes Road and expected to be completed by 2024. The development’s situation, outside of town, is intentional; it’s a way to safeguard the established businesses that Huntsville has long been known for.

“We've seen a lot of our historical retailers, mom-and-pop shops, stay down in the urban core. On the outskirt of our downtown, we're seeing the larger retailers coming in to fill those areas,” says Nagy. For instance, Walmart, Reitmans, and Mark's Work Warehouse (fairly recent additions) are located near the highway, on the opposite end of town from the downtown BIA. “Our Official Plan really speaks to where the larger box stores, new developments can actually be located.”

With new developments cropping up increasingly in Huntsville, it’s clear that the town is receptive to change, but with that comes growing pains.

“In the development stage, like through the planning process… that's usually when we get a lot of public input,” says Nagy. Recently, a forthcoming residential development, The Summit Towns, has been contentious among Huntsville locals due to the removal of trees and the high point of sale. “We've heard the voice of, ‘hey, we don't want this to happen again,’ so we're currently going through a new process of how we're dealing with planning applications and approvals.”

The new planning process is expected to launch at the beginning of January and will incorporate tree-cutting and soil removal bylaws, and will address wetland and wildlife preservation, including the protection of deer wintering lands -- “which we’ve never had before,” notes Nagy.

“We're really excited and we've heard positive comments from the local residents who have been here for years,” he adds. “They don't want to see the characteristics of Huntsville go by the wayside. And they want to make sure that any future allowances within the planning department incorporates the natural vegetation and natural kind of earth tones on the buildings and things like that.”

In addition, the team behind the scenes of the town is growing.

“We've actually seen an increase in staffing within the building department, which has been great in dealing with this additional work, and there have been changes within the building code itself to allow for remote inspections if required,” says Nagy. “It's definitely going to be a better process forward to maintain what makes Huntsville Huntsville.”

Cover photo: Brittany Kass for Downtown Huntsville BIA