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30% of Calgary community associations questioning their survival throughout the pandemic

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Community halls across Calgary have been sitting empty for the most part since the pandemic started, and some associations are wondering whether they can survive the financial blow from the COVID-19 pandemic. Carolyn Kury de Castillo reports. – May 19, 2021

They are the heart of a community and provide everything from seniors’ programs to a place to play hockey, but the pandemic is threatening the future of some of Calgary’s community associations.

It’s been very quiet at the Bowness Community Association since the pandemic started and that is reflected in the bottom line.

“We have lost over half of our revenue,” said Bowness Community Association executive director Michelle Dice.

“That’s a big impact on us because the revenues we bring in support social programs that we do for free, so without that support, it limits the amount of social programming we can do, and until the revenues go back up to normal, it will limit our ability to do the events.”

Read more: City of Calgary reopens select rinks and pools; community associations left with difficult decisions

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Because of COVID-19 restrictions, minor hockey and soccer only ran for a short time at the Bowness Community Association. The same goes for other associations that normally would have rented out their halls for everything from dance classes to weddings.

“There’s a lot of stuff going on in the community centre that I don’t think a lot of people realize,” Dice said.

Community associations receive no operating dollars. They earn all their income from grants, casinos and rentals, so when that dries up, there’s no income, according to the executive director of the Federation of Calgary Communities.

“It’s tough. They are not-for-profit volunteer-run with no source of revenue, so they are cutting into reserve funds,” said Leslie Evans.

Evans said around a third of local community associations are questioning their future.

“About 30 per cent are wondering if they will survive financially through the pandemic, so it’s a very serious time just as it is for businesses,” Evans said.

Read more: Downtown Calgary residents discuss possible community association

Evans said if a community association hands over the keys, not only are essential social programs lost but hundreds of millions of dollars in city-owned assets are also at stake.

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“We need local residents to see the value in these associations and help contribute because ultimately, if those assets go back, we lose them at a local perspective but the taxpayer is on the hook to deal with them as they fall into disrepair,” Evans said.

Last May, city council approved $6 million in relief funding for community associations and social recreational groups for operating costs.

The city also secured an additional $5 million through the provincial and federal government Municipal Operating Support Transfer program. These funds will be used to extend the COVID-19 relief fund grant program into Q3 of 2021.

“These are city-owned assets, and while we rely on volunteers to keep them running, if there’s no money and there’s no income, there’s going to be problems,” said Coun. Gian-Carlo Carra.

“We have put money in and if that money is reaching the end of its rope, we need to top that up to get people past COVID times.”

Carra said this issue brings up concerns with the current way community associations are run.

“The community association model is basically based on having a group of volunteers manage city-owned assets. The deal is those assets are there to do a public good provided they are making money,” Carra said.

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“It’s a very difficult time to be a community association leader. My personal belief is that we should not rely on a cadre of volunteers to manage real estate assets for a public good. We should probably have a much better way to manage those assets and then really unleash our volunteer cadre on community volunteering.”

Read more: Calgary politicians push for pop-up COVID-19 vaccination clinics to ensure accessibility

Dice is thankful for the government subsidies that helped keep many community associations afloat during the pandemic.

“In this last year, there have been points where we were analyzing whether it would be best to just close the doors and wrap everything up. The subsidies that have been offered have really helped us make it through. If it weren’t for the subsidies, we wouldn’t be open right now,” Dice said.

Evans said the struggles being faced now by community associations should be a concern to all Calgarians.

“I would ask every resident to think about the value their community association brings. Some people say, ‘I don’t have kids or I don’t access the community,'” Evans said.

“But it’s the community that is advocating around roads and safety and talking with your councillor about issues that are affecting your community as a whole.”

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