Whether through organizing Christmas celebrations, block parties or encouraging neighbours to engage with each other, community associations might be the answer for residents hoping to maintain St. Albert’s small-town feel.
Currently there’s only one community association active in the city. That’s the Heritage Lakes Community Association, which was started in the early 1990s.
That association has been active over the years, hosting events for their community and the city and helping bring neighbours closer together. The neighbourhood has come together to throw parties, clean ups and even inspire a sub-group to pursue creek restoration.
The St. Albert social master plan notes the need for people to feel connected to their community and suggests a way to measure that connectivity is the number of community associations. That plan notes that Heritage Lakes’ association is currently the only one.
So what would people need to do to start a new community association?
Community association president Jody Mathon moved to Heritage Lakes in 2002 and got involved with the group a few years ago.
“I’m very lucky. When I got to this community the association was already set up. But I think what’s holding the other communities back, it’s a fair amount of paperwork,” Mathon said.
Their association is a non-profit organization, which allows them to apply for grants due to their official status.
But to get that status, there has to be board directors signed on and annual financial reporting.
Mathon suggests those looking to start a community association try and find people with diverse strengths to be on the board, from financial know-how to event planning to recruiting volunteers.
Their association has received grants to enable them to expand their events, such as the annual Family Day festivities, so people from the rest of St. Albert could attend.
But Mathon points out that their events – such as the Halloween party or Christmas party – can be a bit more intimate than larger shindigs.
Her group is also hoping to expand their appeal to more neighbours with diverse interests, not just those with kids.
“We always welcome new people,” she said. “We would like to have more people involved for sure.”
That includes brainstorming event ideas that could attract new faces, such as potential music jam sessions or yoga nights.
Down the road from St. Albert, Edmonton has a thriving community league system. There are 157 leagues, growing at about the rate of one league per year.
Allan Bolstad, executive director of the Edmonton Federation of Community Leagues, said the community association system was built into Edmonton about 100 years ago.
“Over the years, what it’s helped do I think mostly is help keep a small-town feel,” Bolstad said.
As cities grow and become more impersonal, Bolstad said community leagues can help people connect with their neighbours and feel a sense of ownership and pride for their community.
“There’s a lot of benefits to having people feel a sense of belonging, a sense of ownership,” he said. That can include better communication between neighbours, maintaining property standards and inspiring people to volunteer.
Edmonton’s successful system has drawn attention from other cities, Bolstad said.
“We’re certainly open to try and help spread the word,” he said, adding he encourages St. Albert residents to consider starting more associations as their city grows.
Part of the community league success story in Edmonton is support from the municipal government, he said. There are start-up grants, operating grants and other forms of support.
“It’d be very important if groups in St. Albert wanted to get going that the city work hand in hand with this. And it’ll pay huge dividends to the city if they do,” Bolstad said.
In St. Albert, there are grants that Heritage Lakes Community Association has successfully applied for and the municipal government has helped support other events.
The Family and Community Support Services department has a neighbourhood development section that helps promote activities to connect the community – such as block parties.
Kelly McConnell, the community recreation branch manager in St. Albert, said the department works with about 80 groups and if someone wanted to start a new community association they’d likely meet with them.
“We would definitely meet with them and hear them out,” he said, noting the city offers support to various community groups with information sharing and development workshops.
“We have a toolbox of the kind of services that we provide, whether it’s a neighbourhood group or a specific recreation group,” McConnell said.