Throughout the pandemic, there has been an uptick of people vacating the city in exchange for more space in the suburban and rural outskirts of the Greater Toronto Area (GTA), including Simcoe County.
According to a report from Statistics Canada, from July 2019 to July 2020, Toronto saw an exodus of 50,375 people moving to other regions and provinces.
New Orillia resident Matt Williams is one of those people.
When the pandemic hit, Williams worked from home in Toronto at his corporate job in print and advertising.
As the pandemic persisted and he continued working at home, "It dawned on me, 'I don't have to be in the city. I should just leave. I should just go,’" he said.
At the time, he was actively searching for a first home to purchase in the Burlington area. As a first-time home buyer, his options in the GTA were rather limited.
“My buying power is better if I leave Toronto,” he remembers thinking. “I wouldn’t be able to afford a place in Toronto on my own.”
Williams had previously been offered a job for local print apparel company Screen Machine Promotions in Orillia. He had built a good relationship over the years with owner Aaron Barton from previous work projects. As much as Williams wanted to work for the Orillia company, it never felt like the right time, until now.
With the real-estate market booming in smaller cities, Williams reconsidered taking the job in Orillia, and started looking at homes to purchase in the area.
With the help of his real-estate agent friend, he found himself a townhouse available for quick sale, put in an offer, and moved in October 2020.
“I went back to Screen Machine and said, 'I got a place and can start in a few weeks,'” he said. “(Barton has) offered me a cool opportunity to grow a small, local business."
Williams has always been a creative spirit. With a background in marketing and advertising, and his side hustle, MattMadeCa, an Etsy shop of customized apparel and gifts, the decision to work for a smaller, local company allowed him to use his creative skills while getting into the real-estate market.
Williams has always had a soft spot for the small town. His parents live just around the corner from his new place, but school and work had always kept him in the city. Now he is able to be close to family while doing the work he is passionate about.
As a kid, he loved video games and creative arts. He was always drawing and making crafts and learned how to screen print in high school.
"I love functional art. I like creating things that you can use, which is what drew me to apparel," he said.
The pandemic has shown Williams just how important supporting local business is. He really noticed the ‘shop local’ movement pick up in his Etsy shop sales. He sells internationally, with most sales coming from the U.S., but in 2020, he said his Canadian sales tripled from 2019 levels.
“When the pandemic hit, everyone went online to buy stuff,” he explained. “Through the pandemic, there was a massive shift of Canadians wanting to support Canadians. That was really cool to see.”
Now that he has made Orillia his permanent home, he is excited to be able to help support and grow local business while still creating for his Etsy shop in his spare time.
"There was such a seamless transition to where I was before to what I am doing now because I knew it would be a good time, and it has been so far," he said.