Townsend: the metropolitan city that never was

Townsend: the metropolitan city that never was
TOWNSEND—This faded billboard promised a city that never came to be. While 1,200 people now reside there, it was once envisioned for 250,000. —Photo courtesy of David Judd.

By Mike Renzella

The Haldimand Press

Long since overgrown, the trail once boasted 13.5 km of curated pathways.

TOWNSEND—What if they made a city and nobody came? This question, posed by historian and journalist David Judd, kicked off an in-depth virtual presentation that looked at why Townsend, initially planned as a massive metropolis in the heart of Haldimand-Norfolk, never fully materialized.

Townsend was first conceived when plans were unveiled by Stelco in 1967 to build an $800-million coal-fired generating station in Nanticoke. Additionally, Texaco announced plans for a $75-million oil refinery in Nanticoke, with a 6,000-acre industrial park from Lake Erie Works approved for the area in 1973. 

The hope at the time was that the industrial area would attract an auto plant and employ thousands. When big auto manufacturers such as Toyota did come to Ontario, however, they selected sites nearby the province’s 400-series highways instead.

Housing Minister Claude Bennett brought a gold shovel to Townsend’s groundbreaking ceremony, August 29, 1980.

Initially, the government envisioned Townsend as a city populated by 250,000 residents, with the public first becoming aware of the planned city in 1974. By 1979, after several years of planning, that scope was narrowed down to 100,000 residents, with the first phase, consisting of 1,600 homes and 5,000 people, expected to be complete by 1985. Projections at the time expected the population to reach 40,000 by the year 2000.

“Townsend was almost at the exact centre of Haldimand and Norfolk,” explained Judd during his presentation. 

Townsend was strategically planned to be close to both Highways 3 and 6, just 20 minutes from the Nanticoke industrial area, and, importantly, the land was not recognized as prime agricultural land.

In the 1970s, Judd was a reporter for The Nanticoke Times, extensively covering the development of Townsend. At the time, The Nanticoke Times banner featured a graphic image conceptualizing a series of high-rise apartments planned for the town, but these would never be built.

Additional planned-but-never-built facilities included nine schools and a community college, a department store, hotel, movie theatre, indoor sports complex, and an art gallery, with both a bus depot and a train station.

Townsend’s first residents move in, December 1980.

Townsend’s first residents, the Warren family, moved in on December 2, 1980 following the first round of completed homes being built: “Mr. Warren worked at Stelco, and he looked all around Simcoe and Port Dover. He decided Townsend was the best deal for his money. The Ontario Land Corporation celebrated the first resident by giving him a key to the city and a Christmas tree.”

From there, the community slowly began to grow. Judd described the ‘pioneer spirit’ that drove early settlers of Townsend, who created their own community associations, including the formation of the Townsend Lions Club in 1984, so they could organize local events and children’s sports leagues.

Families would spend time together at the man-made Quarry Lake conservation area on the outskirts of the town, or they would take long walks on the 13.5 km Townsend Trail along Nanticoke Creek. That trail has long since been abandoned and left to overgrow.

Judd said that by 1989, it was apparent that the dream of Townsend was over: “There were no building lots left in Townsend. The government was not extending the water lines and roads, etc. The last 48 lots were built in 1990.”

An aerial photo from November 1980 shows the first completed homes in Townsend.

He added that although the Ontario government spent millions of dollars in planning and development, “the people didn’t buy into Townsend, and it never became anywhere near the project it was supposed to be.”

An ad shows different options available to buyers in 1980.

In addition to the industrial area not growing as expected, many of the workers who did find jobs in Nanticoke went on to settle in Hamilton, Simcoe, Port Dover, or Jarvis. 

Judd laid out a timeline for Townsend’s demise, starting in 1982 when developers began giving out incentives to lure home buyers, through to 1986 when the Ontario Land Corporation began selling land back to farmers, to the closure of the town’s Provincial office in 1999.

In reality, 48 years after it was originally conceived, Townsend has only about 1,200 residents, a portion of which live in a senior living building in the town. Only 400 of the planned 14,000 acres were ever developed on, and there are no shops or schools to be found there. 

Today, Townsend is home to Children’s Aid and Community Mental Health and Addictions Services, which utilize the former regional buildings that housed municipal staff prior to Haldimand and Norfolk being split into two separate municipalties.

Potential homebuyers attend an open house in November, 1980.
—Photos courtesy of the Norfolk County Archives.

Additionally, for the first time in nearly 30 years, construction is underway in the area, with 30 new townhouses being built around the village centre, with more details available at trailsidetownsend.com.

“Townsend was a bold, well-designed project,” summed up Judd on the nearly 50-years of reporting he has done on the subject. “It was based on flawed assumptions about growth…. In the long run, Townsend has been a good place to live for two generations of residents.”

Those interested in viewing Judd’s full virtual presentation on Townsend can find it at www.youtube.com/watch?v=K-IqnDm-Gcw&t=739s