What’s the Future of Calgary’s Community Associations?

As many of Calgary’s community associations struggle to maintain their facilities with fewer volunteers, the role they play for the residents they serve is being called into question.

Illustration by Pete Ryan.

On a springtime Saturday afternoon, the main hall of the Thorncliffe-Greenview Community Association (TGCA) is busy with a birthday party, where six-year-olds dance away to Latto’s “Big Energy.” Downstairs, a group of cheerful pre-teens make use of the in-house bowling alley, while members of Thornview Seniors grab a bite to eat next door at The 56, a restaurant owned and managed by the community association. Adjacent to the main building, the Forbes Innes Arena hosts a hockey game, while a group of families watch from the concession area.

Built in spurts since the TGCA was established in 1956, the facility encloses five event rooms with capacities that range from 30 to 800, and four racquetball courts, along with the aforementioned restaurant and bowling alley. Additionally, the space is home to a seniors’ group and an afterschool program and offers a variety of fitness and recreational programs. Revenues obtained from hall and arena rentals, as well as biweekly bingos, plus grants, enable the TGCA to employ eight full-time and approximately 40 part-time staff, allowing the board to focus on the community side of its mission, says Alison Abbott, TGCA’s vice-president of public service. “[It’s] very important to us that we’re able to offer low-cost or free events for our community members, and we’re fortunate because we have the other revenue streams available to us,” Abbott says.

Visitors to the TGCA hall and arena can experience today what the heyday of community associations was like five decades ago, when these spaces functioned as a hub for their respective neighbourhoods. Today, this is less common. Currently, there are 151 community associations in Calgary, and, while all of them are run as not-for-profit, grassroots efforts independent from the City, no two are identical. Whereas some community associations such as TGCA run a successful facility that affords them full-time staff, others struggle to keep their buildings afloat — if they operate a building at all. “We are not comparing apples to apples when we look around the city at the different community associations,” says Leslie Evans, executive director at the Federation of Calgary Communities (FCC).

The first community association in Calgary was formally established in the 1920s in Scarboro. Since then, the role has evolved. For many of these associations, operating a City-owned facility has become a barrier in the pursuit of their updated mission. “[Community associations] used to get funding; now they’re 100-per cent reliant on the goodwill of people joining the community association,” says Calgary Mayor Jyoti Gondek, who co-authored a briefing paper on the future of community associations in 2016, before she was elected to office.

According to Shannon Bowen-Kelsick, a hall-rental and facility management consultant who works with five Calgary community halls, one of the main challenges community associations face today is volunteer capacity.

“Most board members step forward to help with community events, build art and do fun things in the community — not to run large facilities,” she says. “In the ’70s and ’80s, there were a lot of volunteers that did do all that work, but we don’t have the volunteer capacity that we used to.”

As recreation alternatives increase for Calgarians across the city, some of the activities traditionally facilitated by community associations are becoming redundant — including their aging facilities. Back in the day, Bowen-Kelsick says, community halls were, “a place where families went to and hung out, people were excited to volunteer, and everybody came together.” But that’s no longer the case. “Now we have to deal with these older facilities, having [fewer] volunteers, sometimes having really taxed and busy board members, and we have more and more demands that are being placed on us from the City.”

Community associations today are not only tasked with facility management, programming, fundraising and reporting, they also enable grassroots initiatives for city-building and engage residents in the local area planning process, a time- and labour-intensive undertaking wherein the City collects the input of Calgarians to help inform the future of our city’s neighbourhoods within a predetermined set of principles, based on the Municipal Development Plan and driven by market forces. This situation has not gone unnoticed: Gondek’s 2016 paper calls for dedicated funding that reaches beyond facility maintenance. “It’s hard to sell the appeal of a community association when our options have become so broad,” she says. “Especially, expecting community associations to maintain upkeep of the building.”

According to Sustainable Calgary’s State of Our City 2020 report, the role of community associations today is to “create community cohesion; foster independence and creativity; and promote participation, social support, neighbourliness, co-operation, shared vision, and trust.” Often enabled by the City of Calgary (though independent from it), community associations not only provide amenities that are highly valued by Calgarians, but they also propel the creation and revitalization of parks and public spaces and advocate for traffic-calming initiatives. Over the last decade, resident-led city-building initiatives like Bow to Bluff in Sunnyside, Flyover Park in Bridgeland and High Park in the Beltline have been championed by their respective community associations. Similarly, Thorncliffe’s recently completed inclusive playground is a result of the initiative of a committed group of neighbours who worked tirelessly on the project for four years with support from the TGCA.

The success of community associations depends, to a large extent, on the capacity and agency of their members and volunteers. In February, Olga Maciejewski, president of the Riverbend Community Association, took to the media to evidence the Kafkaesque funding process that kept her organization from accessing a grant awarded by Calgary’s Parks Foundation. Although eventually funding did come through, the situation they found themselves in didn’t seem fair to her. “I feel like it all depends on the resourcefulness of the volunteers that are involved, their level of energy and their skillsets,” Maciejewski says — and she’s not wrong. In a 1994 paper, Ivan Townshend, a professor of geography at the University of Lethbridge, identified human agency as a core driver of community associations, regardless of the socio-economic status of their members and neighbourhood residents. “Oftentimes, you have these sorts of influential, charismatic people in the community association who have strong connections to aldermen or the mayor, or they are connected at city hall, or they know the right lawyers,” he says. “They can get things done; their voices can be heard.”

In the three decades since Townshend’s study, Calgary’s communities have become more segregated by income, a situation that may influence the concentration of skilled, connected and engaged individuals in certain neighbourhoods, and impact resource allocation. “Sometimes, it’s the same [community associations] that apply for the grants,” says Toun Osuntogun, a planner at the FCC, emphasizing that both the City and the Federation could be more proactive in supporting community associations. “There are so many grants, but how do you actually access them? That’s the biggest barrier.”

While the TGCA doesn’t typically face significant revenue challenges (although, like most organizations, there were challenges due to COVID-19), Abbott recognizes the difficulties community associations encounter when it comes to volunteer capacity. “It is work to stay on top of [funding opportunities] and make sure you’re accessing what’s available and advocating with your elected official when things aren’t [available],” Abbott says. “Working collaboratively with your elected officials is always important, because they can help advocate for you, as well.”

Tina Brillantes, one of three team leads for neighbourhood partnership co-ordinators at the City of Calgary, calls community associations “valuable partners” for the City. “They are an extension of all the programs and services that the city runs,” Brillantes says. “Without them, Calgarians would not have the breadth and depth of opportunities to participate in programs and services within their communities.” The goal of the Neighbourhood Partnership Coordinators (NPC) program led by Brillantes is “to support the community associations at the level they need [it],” she says, while the NPCs help direct community associations to ad-hoc resources, guide the creation of business plans to identify the organizations’ priorities, and function as the “ears on the ground” for City administrators.

The City’s engagement framework includes educational components to level the playing field when it comes to resident participation in the local area planning process and community improvement projects. “We work with communities to help provide that educational background about the planning process and work with them to ensure we’re reaching the most people,” says Breanne Harder, local area plan co-ordinator at the City.

The compilation of a local area plan features working group sessions, during which, Harder explains, “investment priorities are developed from all of our feedback, including deeper dives with our working group [of which community association reps are included as members].”

These priority investments and options are identified in the local area plan, but do not have associated funding, and investment priorities may be implemented by various groups, including the City, developers, the communities or other stakeholders in connection with redevelopment or if/when funding becomes available. “The local area planning process is really where we talk about what makes communities unique and special, and how they’re going to welcome new people into the community in the future,” Harder says, “thinking not only about who’s there now, but who’s going to be there in the future.”

But, whether it’s creating business plans, writing and applying for grants, or learning about the local area planning process, ultimately, the success of a community association continues to depend on the capacity and agency of its volunteers. “We have left a lot to the grassroots, and we have left a lot to citizens,” Gondek says. “And, over time, they have delivered, they have been incredibly engaged, incredibly involved — but it takes time, and people don’t have time anymore.”

Illustration by Pete Ryan.

Indeed, the availability of volunteers is a key disparity among community associations. According to Bowen-Kelsick, “in working class areas, where maybe everybody [is] already working long days, they don’t have the time and the capacity to go and volunteer. Whereas, in some affluent areas, you might have one parent [at] home, or more able to run some volunteer opportunities.” At Saddle Ridge, a neighbourhood in Calgary’s northeast, engaging volunteers to join the board is one of the main challenges the community association currently faces. “This community is largely immigrants, so there are different priorities,” says Asim Baig, president of the Saddle Ridge Community Association. “When you’re trying to settle down, establish yourself, you do whatever you have to do: Side hustle, or two hustles [on top of] a full-time job.”

Essential to the success of the TGCA has been its leadership’s vision and capacity to adapt to new circumstances, and part of adapting to today’s reality is ideating innovative solutions to keep community associations viable. “Some community associations got very creative, and they ended up sharing a staff resource,” Brillantes says. “So, they’ve got a hall manager for three to four different community associations, or they are doing the grant-writing for associations.” Others are choosing to let go of their facilities altogether, though Brillantes says this is not common, and that associations (generally) see value in their facilities. It’s not that they don’t “want” the buildings, Brillantes adds, but that they don’t have the resources to cover the increased cost to maintain the buildings as they age, leading some newer associations to explore lower-cost facilities or innovative infrastructure.

Bowen-Kelsick says that, despite the challenges, there’s still a commonly held perception that a facility is indispensable for the success of a community association. “I hear that a lot from community associations that don’t have a facility, and that’s all they’re fixed on,” she says. In working-class neighbourhoods, in particular, community association facilities continue to serve residents’ needs. A recent survey conducted by the Riverbend Community Association revealed that members viewed the community hall as an important feature of their neighbourhood.

Perhaps a more palatable alternative would be Gondek’s. “It might not be a bad idea to look at how we do mixed-use on sites that already have community association facilities that are either failing into disrepair or starting to age,” she says. “I think it’s that type of public-private partnership that might be able to see a future for community associations.”

In the meantime, volunteer capacity remains unaddressed. According to Abbott, “sometimes the City, and others, rely a lot on the community associations to be a conduit, or help take things forward, and it’s hard because there are not always the resources there to be able to do it.”

Bowen-Kelsick believes additional support to execute the recommendations made by NPCs is essential for the survival of community associations. “It would be amazing if there was a group of individuals that could support the boards with reporting needs, like doing business plans, and running facilities,” she says. “If there was a small group of people filling that gap between the NPC and the board, especially for the smaller boards that don’t have staff and administrators.”

Otherwise, the key issue remains: “There’s so much work to do, and oftentimes, there’s nobody to do it.”

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This article appears in the August 2022 issue of Avenue Calgary.

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