Edmonton

Provincial policy will raise rents of rural adult learning centres by tens of thousands of dollars

Non-profit organizations that work out of Alberta government buildings will be hit with rent increases of tens of thousands of dollars when a new provincial policy comes into effect next year.

Government trying to ensure consistency in its rental agreements

Rocky Learning Centre and two other non-profit organizations lease space in the surplus old provincial building in Rocky Mountain House, Alta. (Trevor Wilson/CBC )

Non-profit organizations that work out of Alberta government buildings will be hit with rent increases of tens of thousands of dollars when a new provincial policy comes into effect next year. 

The Non-Government User Space Use Policy, which comes into effect April 1, will end Alberta's long-standing practice of allowing non-profit organizations to enter into no-cost leases allowing them to operate in government buildings. 

The new rents range from cost-recovery for non-profit groups that do government work and are sponsored by a specific ministry, to full market rates for organizations that don't have direct backing from a provincial ministry. 

The change will be particularly hard for 13 rural Community Adult Learning Programs, which — at little or no cost — help people with literacy, numeracy, basic English, workplace skills and resume writing to help them become employed.

The programs exist in towns including Bashaw, Edson, Taber, Wetaskiwin, Rimbey and Ponoka.

The programs are sponsored by, and receive funding from, Alberta Advanced Education so qualify for rents intended to recover costs of heat, water and electricity. 

In March, executive directors of the 13 programs wrote a letter to Infrastructure Minister Prasad Panda urging him to reconsider. They said the rental increase will be "debilitating" because there are few government funding sources in rural Alberta.

"This new measure will further dilute the current supports and services, which in turn will marginalize rural Albertans, industries and local communities," the letter said.

The program in Hanna, about 215 kilometres northeast of Calgary, will go from paying zero to more than $50,000 a year starting in April, said Doray Veno, executive director of the Hanna Learning Centre.

"That amount of money is so significant to our small non-profits," Veno said. "In the scheme of the Alberta provincial budget, I know it's not going to make a significant difference. But the impacts that it's going to make in rural Alberta, I think, are huge."

The Rocky Learning Centre in Rocky Mountain House, about 215 kilometres southwest of Edmonton, has operated under a no-cost lease in the old provincial building in the centre of downtown. 

The organization shares the surplus government office with the West Country Family Service Association and Visions West Outreach School, operated by the Wild Rose School Division. 

In January, the centre was told by Alberta Infrastructure that its new annual rent would be $82,000, said executive director Jana Thomson.

Thomson said her organization offered to pay $2,000 a month but the offer was not entertained by government officials.

The centre is now assessing whether it should give up space to reduce its rent to about $40,000 annually, move or consider other tough choices. 

The organization subsidizes the full or partial cost of a course for students who can't afford to pay. 

"Either option still means we have to cut staff or put costs on to our students," she said. 

Rural impacts

An Alberta Infrastructure official said the policy will level the playing field on rents paid by organizations using government space. 

Under the current system, similar types of organizations have markedly different rental agreements. 

"This policy ensures there is a transparent process for determining who gets leased space and the lease rates for different types of users," said Hadyn Place, Panda's press secretary.

Place said two of the 13 organizations had their rents reduced under the new system. 

The government is trying to implement the changes gradually to give non-profits time to adjust, he said, but Veno suggested that is easier said than done.

The centre's current location in Hanna's provincial court building is central, accessible for people with disabilities and easily reached by people who don't have a vehicle, Veno said. 

Veno is urging the government to rethink the policy, especially when it comes to rural areas that don't have a surplus of commercial space for rent. 

"I don't believe that there has really been intent to cause harm with the policy change," she said. "However, I don't know if the policy change has been made from a rural lens."

Thomson said there would be a big hole in Rocky Mountain House if high rents force the non-profits out.

"We are a hub for a lot of people in our community," Thomson said. "lt will be a big, empty building in the middle of downtown Rocky Mountain House."

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