Small Quebec town goes touristy; merchants love it, locals grumble. Designer boutiques, cable TV - and up-market prices come to Knowlton

Business is booming but the traffic is horrendous and the locals say they can't afford to live here anymore. Heard this before from towns with names like Woodstock and Carmel? Well, the phenomenon of the booming country town has come to rural Quebec. They call it the New Englandization of Knowlton. It's about how a small Quebec town started to look a lot like those homes of tourist traffic and the discount store - North Conway, N.H., or Freeport, Maine.

It was when the Ralph Lauren store opened last July that it finally dawned on some people here that their sleepy little town had changed forever. Then again, most people saw it coming a few years ago when the big condo development went in beside the lake.

Knowlton is about an hour south of Montreal in a district called the Eastern Townships. It has long been a place where Montrealers had summer houses and cottages on Brome Lake. But industry tended to be in other towns, and it was the old-fashioned kind - knitting mills and small factories up the road in Cowansville, or the world's biggest maker of maple syrup equipment in nearby Waterloo. Knowlton's only big industry was the Clairol plant.

Suddenly, the place began to change; the signs were different, and so were the shoppers. Now they were from Montreal and had money to spend.

All this probably started about five years ago, when Ian Fisher gussied up Robb's Hardware and then Derek Severs opened up L.L. Brome, a name taken from L.L. Bean, the Freeport, Maine store. L.L. Brome is an up-market discount store in the middle of town and Brome is the name of the local county.

Sue Scott participated in lot of this. She helped Severs set up L.L. Brome and was his store manager and buyer. Now she runs the Ralph Lauren outlet and sold some of the controversial condos while waiting for the store to be built.

``The fact that Knowlton looks a lot like New England draws the tourists to town and to the stores,'' she says. ``My best customers are French-speaking people from Montreal. Some of them will come in and spend a few thousand dollars in one visit. And most of them always mention how much Knowlton looks like New England.''

It's no surprise that Knowlton resembles a New England town. It was settled by New Englanders, United Empire Loyalists who left the United States after the Revolutionary war. So there are many English names in this French-speaking province.

Merchants here enjoy the comparison with nearby New England (the Vermont border is 20 minutes away) but they don't want the same development that came to Freeport and North Conway. ``We want this to be a walking town, not a strip town where you have to drive from store to store. And there aren't too many discount stores here. The shopping is mostly full price,'' says Ms. Scott, chatting in a local restaurant.

A couple of tables away sits Brian Timmins, Lois Hardacker, and other members of the local chamber of commerce. They have just scored a big victory: a new stop sign on the main street. But Mr. Timmins has suffered a defeat this year. He wanted a new sewage system put in to handle the overflow from the condo development. A local referendum turned him down and left a lot of people bitter.

``The locals can't afford to shop here anymore,'' says Jane Gilday, a sheep farmer who lives a few miles outside the village. Mrs. Gilday has been critical of local development and was instrumental in getting the pro-development mayor defeated in the last election. ``A lot of people here don't like Knowlton anymore. It's been ruined by development. All the merchants can think of is their cash registers.''

The boom in Knowlton's retail trade has made space for a service business. Henry and Jeanne Saint Gelais moved here from the Boston area last August and began a computer service business, doing everything from typesetting to word processing. ``It is a painless transition coming from New England,'' says Mrs. Saint Gelais. Her husband says he is suprised at how quickly their small business has grown. ``A lot of people were tasking work to Montreal. Now they're getting it done right here,'' he says.

New people moving here permanently and more people coming on weekends have caused a sharp rise in real estate prices. ``In the past couple of years real estate prices have gone up by 50 to 75 percent,'' says Anthony Thompson, a local real estate agent. ``A lot of people from Montreal who used to vacation or weekend in the Laurentians now find they prefer the New England-like atmosphere of Knowlton and the Eastern Townships.''

This month Knowlton passed a milestone in its growth: The local paper carried an ad that cable TV was coming to town, all 33 channels.

The town built its wealth on being noncommercial, a place with the charm of clapboard houses and no neon signs. That was the easy part. The tough job will be keeping it that way.

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