ACCA Member Spotlight: A house built on community dreams
Published on September 18, 2018 by Will McGlynn
Sangudo, Alberta. Not exactly a place with the grandeur of the Rockies, the vastness of oil fields or the beauty of a silhouetted Calgary skyline.
Unsurprisingly, the folks at Travel Alberta don’t recommend paying a visit to the town located NW of Edmonton off Highway 43 either – even given the beauty of the Pembina river which wraps its’ way around the village.
In 2010, like many rural provincial hamlets, Sangudo was facing the devastating impacts of a dying community. Retail outlets on Main Street stood vacantly, the economy was spiraling even before the vice grip of the 2013 recession and vital infrastructure such as the school had even threatened to close. Yet in this little corner of the province – a physical embodiment of the ‘Alberta Strong’ catchphrase – ‘Sangudonians’ came together to leverage the intelligence of its people and the will of 200 volunteers to revive the community.
“The way to change the world is through individual responsibility and taking local action in your own community”Jeff Bridges, Activist and Musician
With a little help from Alberta Recreation and Parks Association (ARPA), the community received a grant and those volunteers helped keep the school open and complete a major playground project, including a Skatepark, Beach Volleyball Courts and various amenities that increased social wellbeing. A place to build the dreams of tomorrow was secured, however, the economic challenge and the growing problem of 50% of business buildings standing vacant needed addressing.
Step in Dan Ohler and the Sangudo Opportunity Development Co-operative (SODC).
“Our vision and purpose
wasnot to run a business,but provide the intellectual, social and financial capital for entrepreneurs to succeed and run their own businesses in Sangudo. The aim of the co-op is to enable the community to thrive, even if there is no growth. We want people to be proud of where they live, with access to the business they want and a high quality of life for their families”
Dan Ohler, Co-Founder, Sangudo Opportunity Investment Co-operative
Co-ops are so often the backbone to rural Alberta communities and encouraged by the ARPA project spirit, predominately older community leaders explored how to create a sustainable community without the rigmarole of creating and running a business. By creating an Opportunity Development Co-operative (ODC) and after agreeing to a mutual financing structure, 22 SODC members invested into the co-op to purchase the real estate, with the 2 entrepreneurs coming up with their own cash to purchase the business after conventional financial institutions rejected them. A year later, the SODC structured a similar initiative to create a community focal point, leading to Connections Coffee House taking on a large building previously occupied by the Royal Canadian Legion.
The legacy of such investments is clearly evident. Sangudo Custom Meat Packers, the company occupying the former abattoir (video), are the second biggest employers behind the County Administration Office. They support the employment of up to 10 full-time employees and offer several part-time youth positions that provide training and a sense of community ownership which helps keep the next generation in Sangudo as opposed to them making the 45-minute journey to Whitecourt or Spruce Grove in search of employment. They are also now a world-class slaughterhouse thanks to a further round of SODC investment to match a government grant. Without the input of the co-operative and an approach based upon co-operative values, you would be hard pressed to have created these jobs and a community lifeline.
In the case of Connections Coffee House, after 3 successful years, they purchased the Royal Canadian Legion building from the cooperative. A prime location on Main Street was here to stay, with Connections able to sell their business and attract further investment into the community via an entrepreneur who has set up the “Cookhouse on Main” coffeehouse and restaurant.
In the bigger perspective of community development, the better the supported projects do, the better SODC can perform. With the success of the first two co-operative projects, where could these new funds be reinvested to? Dan explains that:
“The real challenge right from the start has been housing, there’s demand but no quality homes to buy”.
After purchasing 3 residential lots in the Hamlet, and opposed to bringing in a non-local contractor to build new residential properties, co-operative members inclusive of local skilled plumbers, electricians, carpenters, and excavators provided supplies and time to build a 1360 sq. foot home with a walkout basement on the 1st plot. With this project, community growth is not the primary aim – although it is hoped that new ideas and people coming to Sangudo can help it thrive. Not only is the hope to attract new people to a community harboring big aspirations, but the first owners of this house are safe in the knowledge they are boosting the aspirations and livelihoods of their future neighbors.
The SODC is a shining example of how co-operatives can stimulate community development and crucially ensure that jobs and a unique community fabric can remain in hamlets like Sangudo. It is clear the compassionate care is helping gentrify this Albertan community, and it is apt that such an opportunity to purchase a new home has been built in a community that wears their heart on their sleeve.
The world may not be changing as a whole, but the world is certainly changing in Sangudo thanks to the power of co-operatives and community individuals collaborating locally.