Of all the places newly married couple Lily Miao and Dong Wang once thought they would one day call home, Milton, Ont., didn't even register.
Perched on the northwestern tip of the Greater Toronto Area, the town isn't exactly bursting with diversity – especially not for twenty-something Chinese immigrants. Visible minorities make up just 17 per cent of Milton's population, according to the 2006 census, while at least half of nearby Mississauga and Brampton is something other than white. Plus, the couple jokes, they have found exactly one Chinese restaurant in town, and it only serves takeout.
When it came time to buy, however, none of that deterred them. Nor has it stopped a slew of people their age from flocking to the edge of the Niagara Escarpment. Milton, once best known for its proximity to apple picking and a tiny ski hill, is chock full of young couples and thirty-somethings who are up all night with toddlers and infants. With a median age of 34 years, it was the second youngest community in the GTA in 2006, and it has only been inundated with more young couples since. In 2006, the federal census named Milton Canada's fastest-growing community.
Forget what the urban planners tell you about all young people dying to move downtown. Those who buy in Milton are more than happy to bypass Queen West and the St. Lawrence Market. Condos? Please. They own townhouses, semi-detached homes and full-on suburban mansions, allowing them to soak in the sun from their backyards.
"I'm not a downtown person," says Kelly Turner Spinelli, who bought a Milton home in 2006. "It overwhelms me a little bit."
Yet for the longest time people who share this attitude couldn't buy in Milton because there simply weren't enough new developments. It wasn't until the late 1990s that the town started spending big on infrastructure, and that spurred new housing. In 2006, its population jumped 71 per cent, to 53,939, in just five years.
Preliminary data from the 2011 census shows that Milton has not slowed down since then. The population has jumped another 56.5 per cent and 32-year mayor Gord Krantz puts current estimates just shy of 100,000 people.
Such rapid growth has at times overwhelmed the once bucolic town. "Has it all been peaches and cream?" Mr. Krantz asks rhetorically in his southern-sounding drawl. "No. Far from it." But he believes Milton has finally found its footing – and its spotlight.
Location, location... really? Location?
Kelly and Sebastian Spinelli took the leap of faith in 2006. Newly engaged, the couple had hoped to find a home in Mississauga, where they grew up, but were quickly deterred because houses were too small in the areas they could afford. "We didn't want to settle on something that was in an older neighbourhood," Ms. Spinelli, 29, says. "We were craving something that was new and fresh and exciting."
That doesn't mean she wasn't skeptical about Milton, especially because much of it was still farmland, and at the time the most exciting thing there was Wal-Mart. But her attitude changed when she and her then-fiancé visited a friend who had already made the move. Their drive from Mississauga only took 15 minutes, and they were greeted by fresh air and loads of space. The Spinellis also realized that they wouldn't be moving out to the boonies with no one else around. Yes, most of Milton was undeveloped, but the population was already growing quickly, and there would soon be a critical mass of people their age.
On their way home, the couple stopped to see a few model homes. "The prices were phenomenal compared to where we had been looking. And we could get into a semi-detached," Ms. Spinelli recalls. "We could skip right past condo, we could skip right past townhouse."
That's the most common sentiment among people who move to Milton – they all love their affordable homes. For a $480,000 listing price, you can get a fully detached brick house complete with 4 bedrooms and 2.5 bathrooms on a 30-by-88-foot lot. On top of that, the residential tax rate is the second lowest in the GTA, second only to Toronto proper.
The Number Two reason people move to Milton, which came out in conversations with numerous couples: location. Downtown hipsters probably can't process such a blasphemous thought. How can a town so far from Wrongbar and the Gladstone be considered a great location?
"At a certain stage of life, I'm not too worried about [partying]all the time," says 27-year-old Allison McHenry, whose new Milton townhome is under construction. As a nurse in Halton Region, her schedule isn't exactly optimal for wild nights out to begin with, and she hopes her friends will come visit once they realize Milton isn't too far from where they all grew up in Mississauga. If they do, there are a few options for a night out, such as Rad Brothers, a sports bar and tap house that recently opened and plays Top 40 music on Friday nights.
Still, driving through Milton, you can't help but notice all of the typical fast-food chains such as Extreme Pita and Hero Burger. And most sit-down restaurants are the usual suspects, such as Boston Pizza and Shoeless Joe's. In fact, when Ms. Spinelli first moved to Milton, there was such little choice that she couldn't even get into a place like East Side Mario's on a Friday night. It was too crammed.
Social life, though, is only one of many factors. To some, work commutes are just as important, and Milton's location can be convenient. Ms. Miao, for instance, works near Square One in Mississauga, and her husband works in Guelph, so the town is practically equidistant from their offices. And for those with jobs downtown, the GO train extends all the way to Milton.
Shiny and new, with a few bumps in the road ahead
Unlike so many of Toronto's public spaces, which were built years ago, much of Milton is brand new. Take the sparkling $39-million Milton Centre for the Arts, which opened last fall. Designed by +VG Architects, the centre has a 500-seat theatre, a space for community art exhibitions, and it is attached to the new flagship branch of Milton's public library.
Milton's town hall is also in pristine condition after an $18-million expansion wrapped up in 2010. Redeveloped with the environment in mind, the building in the heart of older Milton now boasts a LEED certification and has earned praise from the architectural community.
These transformations are only taking place now because growth was stunted until the late 1990s. For decades, Milton didn't have the capacity to pump wastewater and water to and from Lake Ontario, 20 minutes to the south. That finally changed in the late 1980s when plans were put in place for what Mayor Krantz calls "the big pipe."
Because Milton had such a small tax base, the town had long struggled to fund the upfront costs of building such a water system. To help, developers such as Mattamy Homes stepped in, offering to absorb some of the fees because, in their view, the long-term rewards would be worth it. In the decade since, the developer has profited handsomely from building the massive Hawthorne Village community where Ms. Miao and Mr. Wang live. Over 10,000 families now call the Mattamy-built neighbourhood home.
But not everything is brand spanking new in this town – at least not yet. Money is badly needed to widen main arteries such as Derry Road and Bronte Road, and to build underpasses that allow drivers to dodge the train tracks that cut through the heart of the town. Last year alone, Milton budgeted $39.3-million, half of its capital budget, for road developments because so many residents say the trip to the 401, the nearest highway, is a nightmare before and after work.
Milton residents also worry about rapidly escalating house prices. In mid-2008, the average house price was $336,041. At the end of 2011 it was $427,249. That's a 27 per cent jump in 2 1/2 years. The rapid rise has prompted the Spinellis to cash in the $100,000 in equity they earned from their first semi-detached home and put it toward their current fully detached house on the west side of town.
Despite these worries, residents love Milton's small-town allure. In the older part there are bungalows and two-storey homes with quaint porches, and the list of Top 20 employers is folksy enough to include Chudleigh's Apple Farm.
"It now feels kind of like Mississauga did when I was a child became it's getting bigger and it's booming," she says. "But there's still that small downtown Main Street where you can get that old-town feel."
DO THE MATH
Milton: 85 Bronte St. S.
What you get:
A three-bedroom, two-storey detached house in Old Milton
A quarter-acre of land
Wide plank hardwood floor
Toronto: 255 Richmond St. E.
What you get:
A one-bedroom condominium in the Moss Park neighbourhood.
Close to subway
Building has 24-hour concierge, gym
Milton: 894 Yates Dr.
What you get:
Four-bedroom, three-bathroom 3,000-sq-ft home
Toronto: 55 Norseman St.
What you get:
A three-bedroom bungalow in Etobicoke
"Minutes to downtown, golf and the airport"
Milton: 86 Martin St.
What you get:
A four-bedroom century home in downtown Milton
Renovated with self-contained nanny suite
Private dock on pond
Toronto: 619 Clinton St.
What you get:
A one-bedroom bungalow in Seaton Village
Two-car garage off lane