Barbecues, Bingos and Bottle Drives

Community volunteers have always stepped up to build places for neighbours to gather, but do the grassroots still run as deep?

On the night U.S. President Barack Obama was elected to a second term in office – Nov. 6, 2012 – a small group of neighbours trickled into the gym at Major General Griesbach School in north Edmonton to hear about plans to build a playground near the school, which had opened two months earlier. What they might not have known when they trudged through the front doors was that Obama would most likely be in the twilight of his presidency before a child took a trip down a slide or sat in a swing.

At the meeting, community league and city officials revealed it would take about three years – and at least $500,000 – to get the playground built.

“It starts off exciting, but the more you look at it, it’s a monumental effort,” says Jim Chronopoulous, an Edmonton lawyer and chair of the playground committee for the Griesbach Community League. He says the committee hopes to build a park and playground “on the high end” of the $500,000 to $1 million range. “It’s a marathon, not a sprint,” he says.

If people are shocked when they find out the amount of time and money it takes to upgrade their community with facilities like playgrounds, they’re not alone, says Alison Mould, a community recreation co-ordinator with the City of Edmonton, who guides residents through the process. “A lot of people don’t realize it’s a community grassroots initiative as opposed to something the school provides,” says Mould.

But that doesn’t deter citizens intent on enhancing their neighbourhoods with amenities like playgrounds, rinks or community halls. Across Edmonton, volunteer groups – be they community leagues or subcommittees, parent councils or other groups – are at various stages on the long road of fundraising, grant applications and planning required to transform their ideas into realities. They’re regular working folks dedicating what would otherwise be free time to liaising with contractors, roping in volunteers for crucial casino fundraising nights and tackling piles of paperwork.

“I work part-time, but it felt like I had another job the whole time. At times, the workload was really intense,” says Tracey Marshall Craig, chair of the playground committee for Summerside Community League, which has been working on a $517,000 playground adjacent to Michael Strembitsky School since 2009. It’s hoping the playground will be open by the start of the new school year.

In general, matching grants from the city, and occasionally the province, cover about half the cost of these builds. Fundraising has to cover the other half, and most of that comes from casinos. Community leagues are entitled to run about one casino every 18 to 24 months. They must recruit dozens of volunteers, but the payoff is lucrative: A single casino can raise between $60,000 to $70,000.

“It’s a lot of work to get 40 volunteers over two days, but it’s much better than selling chocolate almonds or something like that,” says Jenny McAlister, president of Strathearn Community League, which hopes to build a $1-million community hall by 2016, replacing a facility from 1967.

Costs that aren’t met by casinos must come from private or corporate donations, and smaller-scale fundraisers like raffles, barbecues and bottle drives. More arduous than fundraising is often the amount of paperwork involved to get various approvals and grants.

“Every step has a lot of paperwork, and it can be finicky. We have some pretty skilled board members right now and even they find it overwhelming,” says McAlister. “It takes special volunteers to be able to do that.”

This is a particular challenge for community leagues lacking volunteers with that skill-set, or worse – lacking volunteers at all. And Marshall Craig wonders whether the current system is the most equitable way to do things. 

“There should be a lot more responsibility on the part of government and/or developers,” she says. “We’re fortunate [in Summerside] to have a community that’s very supportive. But another community that’s less affluent or more transient or doesn’t have people willing to sit on a committee for three years would be at a disadvantage. It seems a very unjust way of making sure kids have play space.”

Still, many who are immersed in the process, or who have gone through it, believe grassroots is the best way because it’s closest to the community. “It gives you a sense of pride, driving by on a daily basis and seeing the kids using it, having fun on it, and knowing you helped put that there, knowing you helped decide what would be put there,” says Allan Bolstad, executive director of the Edmonton Federation of Community Leagues. Bolstad co-chaired a playground rebuilding project in the Sherbrooke neighbourhood in the late ’80s and early ’90s. “Sometimes I go sit on one of the benches, and I don’t tell anyone I was involved, but I sit there feeling good that the kids are having fun on it,” says Bolstad.

But Bolstad sees changes on the horizon as would-be volunteers face increasing demands on their time. He believes citizens are volunteering less than in the past when it comes to major community projects. He points to the 31 of the 156 community leagues in Edmonton that don’t have community halls: Almost all are in areas of town where the leagues formed in the last 10 years or so. “They’re not building halls, because it’s too much for them,” Bolstad says.

What’s more, matching grants, from the province at least, may be more difficult to come by. The latest provincial budget curbs spending on the Community Facility Enhancement Program, the major source of provincial grants.

With that in mind, Bolstad says he “welcomes” recent signs that property developers might start to get more involved in park-building, instead of just leaving green spaces behind when they pull out of neighbourhoods. Today, developers must contribute 10 per cent of developable land for schools and parks. Once the City and school boards have carved it up further, a fraction is available for the community to decide what to do with.

A joint pilot program between the City and the Urban Development Institute will see seven participating developers spend $12.3 million to build 11 projects this year and next, almost all in new neighbourhoods in south and southwest Edmonton, beyond Anthony Henday Drive.

Each project provides an amenity “that may never have been realized without the help of the developers and this program,” a City report states. It’s expected the project will save community groups a total of $1.5 million.

But the savings come at a cost. “[Residents] may well not feel that same sense of ownership, and it may not be what they would have wanted to build,” Bolstad admits. “But we welcome it with open arms.”

City planners are also floating plans to streamline the building process for playgrounds. Under a proposal submitted to city council in March, community groups would be able to choose from three templates – showing how much playground they can get for their money – rather than having to come up with their plans from scratch and getting sticker-shock later.

Marshall Craig worries the proposal could result in “box-store playgrounds” that all look the same. Many existing Edmonton playgrounds offer unique twists on the usual swings and slides, like the nature-inspired park in Rossdale, the musical-theatre themed playground in Cloverdale and the fire-truck play structure in Oxford.

Bolstad doesn’t see the proposal changing the process much, but says it will at least help time-stretched volunteers realistically assess what they can do. “It will reduce the number of groups getting in over their heads.”

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