Edmonton

Community associations slam cuts to Alberta program that builds parks, public-use facilities

A key grant program that helps build parks and community infrastructure has been cut by nearly 50 per cent over the past two years. Edmonton and Calgary community federations says it's a sign of the government's eroding support for civil society.

Government must invest, not erode support for non-profits, Edmonton and Calgary community federations say

Leela Sharon Aheer is Alberta's minister of culture, multiculturalism and status of women. A spokesperson for Aheer 2021 budget shifted funds on a one-time basis from the community facility enhancement program to the government's COVID-19 stabilize program. (Richard Marion/CBC)

Community associations in Edmonton and Calgary say provincial cuts to a program that helps build parks and community halls is a sign of the government's eroding support for civil society and its devaluing of community infrastructure. 

The Edmonton Federation of Community Leagues and Federation of Calgary Communities have written letters that the Opposition will table in the Alberta legislature Wednesday calling on the Alberta government to address a nearly 50 per cent cut to the community facility enhancement program (CFEP) this year compared to 2019. 

"We call upon our government to recognize the importance of the work of the non-profit sector by investing in it, rather than eroding it," reads the letter addressed to Leela Aheer, who oversees the grant program as minister of culture, multiculturalism and status of women. 

Community associations are regular beneficiaries of the program, which provides matching grants to help build and upgrade public-use facilities, from outdoor rinks to emergency homeless shelters. 

Since 2003, the program has paid out roughly $38 million per year.

The Alberta government's first budget under Premier Jason Kenney saw program funding slashed from $38 million down to $25 million. The 2020 budget showed program funds would stay at $25 million for the next three years.

But the latest budget, released last month, shows the program is expected to pay out even less this fiscal year — $18.5 million, or a 50 per cent cut compared to 2019. Going forward, the program is forecast to pay out $23.5 million on annual basis, levels last seen in the late 1990s and early 2000s. 

The Edmonton and Calgary federations called it a "clear erosion of essential funding appearing to devalue community-based infrastructure," in a separate letter to Aheer earlier this month. 

No communication from ministry, federation says

Calgary's community halls are, on average, 55 years old, says Leslie Evans, executive director of the Federation of Calgary Communities. If volunteers can't support fundraising efforts with matching provincial dollars, many of those buildings will close. 

"We will see the imploding of these, I call them, essential community infrastructure," Evans said. 

At a time when gathering indoors is off-limits and personal finances are tight, the pandemic has reinforced the importance of public spaces, says Laura Cunningham-Shpeley, executive director of the Edmonton Federation of Community Leagues. 

The Community League Plaza in Hawrelak Park, which opened last fall, is one of the latest public amenities built with a $1 million matching grant from the program. 

"I think public spaces are so important for Albertans at all times and especially these times when people have seen cuts to their own jobs, seen cuts to their own incomes," she said. 

Despite repeated attempts, the government has yet to provide the Edmonton Federation of Community Leagues with an explanation for the program cuts, says executive director Laura Cunningham-Shpeley. (Scott Neufeld/CBC)

Since the first round of cuts were introduced in 2019, Cunningham-Shpeley says she's tried unsuccessfully to arrange meetings with the minister about the program. 

"Despite us really trying to understand what the plan is for these facilities, what the plan is for the funding, we have heard nothing," she said. 

In response to questions from CBC News, the minister's press secretary Amanda LeBlanc said the 2021 budget shifted funds on a one-time basis to the government's COVID-19 stabilize program. 

All non-profits are eligible for stabilize program funding, but the government has repeatedly said it will target live event groups — including sports, rodeo and performing arts organizations — to help them kick start operations post-pandemic. 

"Prioritizing stabilize program funding over capital enhancements will assist non-profits and help them to re-open when it is safe to," Leblanc, the press secretary, said in a statement. 

Cunningham-Shpeley says while that money could boost program spending this year, it appears to come at the expense of long-term infrastructure spending, both this year and for years to come.

"If your facilities are falling apart, where are you going to host your events," she said. 

Any cuts to CFEP will be felt far beyond community leagues. Non-profits, post-secondary institutions, First Nations and Métis settlements are all eligible for infrastructure money under the program.

Boyle Street Community Services, an Edmonton homeless and poverty agency, received $60,000 through the program for renovations in 2012/2013. 

"We know as an organization that if our infrastructure matches our programs, that's going to lead to better outcomes for the people that we serve," said Elliott Tanti, senior communications manager. "If you don't have matching funding it is literally twice as hard to get a project done."

'When there's no hall, you don't have a heart'

In northeast Edmonton, the Elmwood Park neighbourhood has struggled to keep up its community infrastructure. Its hall burned down in 1993 and its outdoor rink closed down years later in the absence of regular volunteers, says league president Morgan Wolf. 

The rink's change rooms are now used as the league office. Outside, the park lights are in need of upgrades, Wolf said. 

When the neighbourhood lost its community hall, she says it lost a vital public space to organize events, host classes or simply gather with neighbours.

"A community league hall, that's the heart of your community," she said. "When there's no hall, you don't have a heart, you don't have a home base." 

Beside the park, a community sign advertises the league's latest fundraiser to build a new hall — selling spring seeds. 

Elmwood Park community league says its been without a proper hall since the early 1990s. The league president is concerned that despite their best fundraising efforts, with cuts to the provincial grant program, the neighbourhood will not see a new one any time soon. (Scott Neufeld/CBC)

But Wolf fears, even if that effort proves successful, fewer provincial dollars will mean a longer wait to get a matching grant, or no grant at all. 

"Just to see cuts upon cuts coming our way and our ability to maintain our infrastructure, build our infrastructure, repair our infrastructure, we're just watching it dissipate before our eyes," she said. 

"We're watching community leagues be pushed to the very corners and I'm not sure how much farther they can be pushed until we lose them entirely."

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