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Rowley, the Alberta hamlet populated by nine humans and 15 cats, stays alive by partying




ROWLEY, ALTA.—The keepers of Rowley march across its gravel main street in an early October snowstorm to unlock an Old West-style saloon.

Stepping in from the storm, Doug Hampton flicks on a dim light to reveal a bar that can hold 225 people — many times Rowley’s entire population.

This group of six represents most of the tiny community, and they’re fighting to keep their home alive. Tonight they’ve come to the saloon to unwind after their monthly review of the hamlet’s meagre finances.

The floors are brushed with sawdust, and the walls and ceilings are hidden by crude posters collected over decades. A toilet seat hangs on the wall with “A-hole of the Month Club” written in felt.

It’s still cold, and the group of six keep their jackets on as they distribute cans of beer from a fridge behind the bar. One lights up a smoke at the table.

Anything goes in Rowley, a rural Southern Alberta community with no water or sewer service that swings between bustling tourism hot spot and near ghost town.

“Tourists seem to find the place no matter where they’re from,” said Hampton, a 67-year-old retired oilfield worker who holds a key to open all eight public buildings in town.

“They read about it on the internet or something: ‘tourist attraction’ or ‘ghost town.’ (They say), ‘People live here?’”

Once an agricultural “boom town” of 500, Rowley’s population has shrunk to nine. There’s Doug, his older brother Terry who lives on main street with his wife, a family with two kids and a new couple in a tucked-away home that’s now up for sale.

This is a community that, for all the practical reasons that towns usually exist, should no longer be. The industry is long gone, and there are no civil services. But because the keepers of Rowley see value in these buildings and the history they represent, the place has a chance to keep on living.

Their best shot for fighting the ravages of time: parties.

The main street in Rowley.
The main street in Rowley.  (Codie McLachlan / StarMetro Edmonton)

The community association, made up of residents and people from nearby communities, runs pizza and beer fundraisers on the last Saturday of every month to maintain the hamlet’s most prominent aging buildings.

In July, a record-setting 700 people packed into Rowley, including tourists from across North America and Europe. The main street was roped off so visitors could carry their drinks outside between the community hall, saloon and pool hall while a live band performed.

“We do have a lot of fun. Otherwise it would just be a job and we’d probably all lose interest,” Hampton said.

As critical as the parties are, they aren’t the municipality’s only source of income.

Rowley falls under the jurisdiction of Starland County. In 2017, the Rowley Community Hall Association received just over $6,000 toward utility costs and another $4,500 to help with maintenance and hiring summer students.

Meanwhile, the province has provided close to $600,000 through nine grants since 2007 for tourism products, according to municipal affairs spokesperson Lauren Arscott.

Today the hamlet of Rowley is known for its kitschy storefronts, abandoned houses and barns that have fallen to ruin and two tall grain elevators that house flocks of pigeons. The first sign of life upon entering is a gang of about 15 feral cats occupying a wooden “cat condo” built by Doug’s brother Terry.

Cats in their "condo" in Rowley, a Southern Alberta community that swings between tourism hot spot and near ghost town.
Cats in their « condo » in Rowley, a Southern Alberta community that swings between tourism hot spot and near ghost town.  (Codie McLachlan / StarMetro Edmonton)

The old train station, school house and store are populated by haunting white mannequins dressed in period clothing, positioned to emulate scenes that might have occurred in the 1920s when Rowley was “booming.”

“People would bring in their produce and their milk and their cream and their eggs and ship it on the train, and grain was being hauled out of the elevators. In Rowley then there was two or three lumber yards and a couple of garages and pool halls and barber shops, the hotel, a couple of stores,” Hampton said.

When the Great Depression hit, food stopped growing and the boom turned to bust.

“We never got the rain, just wind all the time. So people started moving away, and the odd fire would sweep up main street there and take away a few of the buildings, and then nobody would rebuild it.”

Rowley once had a daily connection to Edmonton via the Dayliner passenger car, but it stopped running in the 1970s. The nearest place with any real amenities is Drumheller, a 38 km drive away.

When the train disappeared, Hampton’s parents helped form the Rowley Community Association and started restoring the few buildings left on main street.

They re-shingled the United church and turned the train station into a museum with artifacts dating back to the 1800s, “just to keep the buildings alive.” A former grocery store and meat market owned by Chinese immigrant Sam Leung, who passed away in 1972, was renovated as Sam’s Saloon in 1980.

Hampton’s sister Shirley Bremer said the hard work has been worthwhile for the simple joy of sharing the town’s history.

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“It is kind of wild, because some of (the buildings) are pretty bad. But I guess it’s the pleasure you get,” Bremer said. “We’re all proud of where we grew up. It’s just kind of a unique little thing and we like it.”

Rowley’s early rebuild caught the attention of Hollywood film producers, who spent several months there in 1988 shooting the film Bye Bye Blues. The crew constructed storefronts for a bank and a funeral home that residents turned into a pool hall. Film crews occasionally still come around to shoot movie scenes or commercials.

Bill Reimer, director of Rural Policy Learning Commons and professor emeritus at Montreal’s Concordia University, said towns often try “chasing smokestacks” by bringing in new industries, but that’s rarely successful. The ones that get by, Reimer said, are places like Rowley that find ways to leverage the things that make them unique.

“In very general terms, the towns that are managing are the ones that look around and say, ‘What have we got here that we’re particularly good at, and who might be interested in it,’” Reimer said.

In warmer months, visitors can camp in town by donation, and the association hires students in July and August to give guided tours, touch up paint jobs and mow the lawns. Rowley’s community hall, church and saloon are already booked through next summer with weddings, family reunions and other events.

But money from bookings is not enough to cover ongoing maintenance and power costs, and the labour of rebuilding gets tiring for the aging population.

Locals gather in Sam's Saloon after the Rowley Community Hall Association meeting.
Locals gather in Sam’s Saloon after the Rowley Community Hall Association meeting.  (Codie McLachlan / StarMetro Edmonton)

Sitting in his kitchen the afternoon after the snowstorm in one of Rowley’s four inhabited houses, Hampton contemplates the hamlet’s future. He likes the peace and quiet that comes with living in isolation but has recently become painfully aware that it can also be dangerous.

“Life is good until you get sick,” he said.

One night in October, his wife Brenda, in bed at home battling bone and lung cancer, was in pain and needed an ambulance. When he dialed 911, the dispatcher said it was not on their map.

“They didn’t know where the hell Rowley was at,” Hampton said.

“It took probably 15-20 minutes on the phone trying to explain we need an ambulance out of Drumheller, not Red Deer. The wife was dead by then.”

Now another couple that moved to Rowley a year-and-a-half ago is planning to move away, which would bring the population down to seven.

Lars Hallstrom, University of Alberta political studies professor and director of the Alberta Centre for Sustainable Rural Communities, said the trend of people leaving is almost impossible to reverse.

He said rural populations in Canada have been on a pattern of decline for more than a century. Eleven Alberta municipalities have dissolved over the past decade, and about 30 have reviewed whether they should continue to be autonomous, stand-alone municipalities.

The Prairie School Museum — populated by mannequins — in Rowley.
The Prairie School Museum — populated by mannequins — in Rowley.  (Codie McLachlan / StarMetro Edmonton)

Grande Cache in Western Alberta, with a population just over 1,000, voted to dissolve as a town in September after a loss of population and tax revenue made it unsustainable.

“It’s tough. They’ve been paddling upstream for years. And you have to admire the people who are willing to stay (in Rowley) and try to say, ‘This is our home, we do want his place to exist,’” Hallstrom said.

“But it’s very difficult to be optimistic in even the medium term about the likelihood of that community returning to a population of 50, let alone 500.”

Hampton said it’s getting harder to live in a place that lacks so many basic services.

“I don’t know what’s going to happen,” he said. “Once I croak and my brother croaks, hopefully some young people come into town and take interest in it and learn to be proud of the town, too.”

Winter is about to settle in, and a heavy snowfall can render the community inescapable until a snow plow comes from outside.

When asked if he plans to stay put, Hampton takes a moment to pause before answering.

“Yeah. I don’t know where in the hell else I’d move.”

Kevin Maimann is an Edmonton-based reporter covering education and marijuana legalization. Follow him on Twitter: @TheMaimann


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‘Business as usual’ for Dorel Industries after terminating go-private deal




MONTREAL — Dorel Industries Inc. says it will continue to pursue its business strategy going forward after terminating an agreement to go private after discussions with shareholders.

« Moving ahead. Business as usual, » a spokesman for the company said in an email on Monday.

A group led by Cerberus Capital Management had previously agreed to buy outstanding shares of Dorel for $16 apiece, except for shares owned by the family that controls the company’s multiple-voting shares.

But Dorel chief executive Martin Schwartz said the Montreal-based maker of car seats, strollers, bicycles and home furniture pulled the plug on a deal on the eve of Tuesday’s special meeting after reviewing votes from shareholders.

“Independent shareholders have clearly expressed their confidence in Dorel’s future and the greater potential for Dorel as a public entity, » he said in a news release.

Dorel’s board of directors, with Martin Schwartz, Alan Schwartz, Jeffrey Schwartz and Jeff Segel recused, unanimously approved the deal’s termination upon the recommendation of a special committee.

The transaction required approval by two-thirds of the votes cast, and more than 50 per cent of the votes cast by non-family shareholders.

Schwartz said enhancing shareholder value remains a top priority while it stays focused on growing its brands, which include Schwinn and Mongoose bikes, Safety 1st-brand car seats and DHP Furniture.

Dorel said the move to end the go-private deal was mutual, despite the funds’ increased purchase price offer earlier this year.

It said there is no break fee applicable in this case.

Montreal-based investment firm Letko, Brosseau & Associates Inc. and San Diego’s Brandes Investment Partners LP, which together control more than 19 per cent of Dorel’s outstanding class B subordinate shares voiced their opposition to the amended offer, which was increased from the initial Nov. 2 offer of $14.50 per share.

« We believe that several minority shareholders shared our opinion, » said Letko vice-president Stephane Lebrun, during a phone interview.

« We are confident of the long-term potential of the company and we have confidence in the managers in place.”

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Pandemic funds helping Montreal businesses build for a better tomorrow




Many entrepreneurs have had to tap into government loans during the pandemic, at first just to survive, but now some are using the money to better prepare their businesses for the post-COVID future.

One of those businesses is Del Friscos, a popular family restaurant in Dollard-des-Ormeaux that, like many Montreal-area restaurants, has had to adapt from a sit-down establishment to one that takes orders online for takeout or delivery.

“It was hard going from totally in-house seating,” said Del Friscos co-owner Terry Konstas. “We didn’t have an in-house delivery system, which we quickly added. There were so many of our employees that were laid off that wanted to work so we adapted to a delivery system and added platforms like Uber and DoorDash.”

Helping them through the transition were emergency grants and low-interest loans from the federal and provincial governments, some of which are directly administered by PME MTL, a non-profit business-development organization established to assist the island’s small and medium-sized businesses.

Konstas said he had never even heard of PME MTL until a customer told him about them and when he got in touch, he discovered there were many government programs available to help his business get through the downturn and build for the future. “They’ve been very helpful right from day one,” said Konstas.

“We used some of the funds to catch up on our suppliers and our rents, the part that wasn’t covered from the federal side, and we used some of it for our new virtual concepts,” he said, referring to a virtual kitchen model which the restaurant has since adopted.

The virtual kitchen lets them create completely different menu items from the casual American Italian dishes that Del Friscos is known for and market them under different restaurant brand names. Under the Prasinó Soup & Salad banner, they sell healthy Greek options and their Stallone’s Sub Shop brand offers hearty sandwiches, yet the food from both is created in the same Del Friscos kitchen.

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Downtown Montreal office, retail vacancies continue to rise




Some of downtown Montreal’s key economic indicators are heading in the wrong direction.

Office and retail vacancies in the city’s central core continued to climb in the fourth quarter of 2020, according to a quarterly report released Thursday by the Urban Development Institute of Quebec and the Montréal Centre-Ville merchants association. The report, whose first edition was published in October, aims to paint a socio-economic picture of the downtown area.

The survey also found office space available for sublet had increased during the fourth quarter, which may foreshadow even more vacancies when leases expire. On the residential front, condo sales fell as new listings soared — a sign that the downtown area may be losing some of its appeal to homeowners.

“It’s impossible not to be preoccupied by the rapid increase in office vacancies,” Jean-Marc Fournier, the former Quebec politician who now heads the UDI, said Thursday in an interview.

Still, with COVID-19 vaccinations set to accelerate in the coming months, “the economic picture is bound to improve,” he said. “People will start returning downtown. It’s much too early to say the office market is going to disappear.”

Public health measures implemented since the start of the pandemic almost a year ago — such as caps on office capacity — have deprived downtown Montreal of more than 500,000 workers and students. A mere 4,163 university and CEGEP students attended in-person classes in the second quarter, the most recent period for which figures are available. Border closures and travel restrictions have also brought tourism to a standstill, hurting hotels and thousands of local businesses.

Seventy per cent of downtown workers carried out their professional activities at home more than three days a week during the fourth quarter, the report said, citing an online survey of 1,000 Montreal-area residents conducted last month.

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