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Grow Calgary future uncertain after Alberta backs away from relocation deal

Grow Calgary may have seen its last harvest after a recent letter from the province they say appears to renege on a $300,000 agreement-in-principle reached earlier this year to move the urban farm.

The province has now said they’ve spent $340,000 in kind already on the project.

The group was forced to move from its former northwest Calgary location near WinSport, presumably because it was adjacent to the transportation utility corridor where work is being done on the West leg of Calgary’s ring road. A previous contract for that area had expired.

In late January, a last-minute deal was struck for a new, 15-to-20-acre parcel of land in the city’s southeast, just east of Stoney Trail.

Grow Calgary received a letter from Deputy Infrastructure Minister Shannon Flint dated July 3, outlining what Alberta had already provided the urban farm and that there would be no more support available. LiveWire Calgary has a copy of that letter.

“Throughout this time, a significant amount of public funds has been spent in support of Grow Calgary. With that said, the Province has now entered into a time of fiscal restraint and will no longer be able to provide additional support to Grow Calgary,” the letter reads.

The letter continues by saying that a license for the proposed site is still available, but all remaining expenses must be “resolved” by Grow Calgary.

Celebration of Alberta agriculture

Paul Hughes, president and executive director of Grow Calgary, said the letter comes at an opportune time for the Alberta government – a time when agriculture is being celebrated during the Calgary Stampede.

“It’s in the middle of Stampede, this is all about farms and agricultural history. And here we have the government going after us,” Hughes said.

Grow Calgary opposed the move from the original northwest location, citing no specific explanation from the province why they had to be relocated. Previously, the province told LiveWire Calgary that the contract had simply expired, and they were willing to provide both new locations and financial support to move.

The province did indicate in previous interviews that the land was next to the transportation corridor near the west leg of the new ring road, but they could not confirm what its actual purpose would be in ongoing construction work.

Hughes said the vacated land still has no activity on it and they could have stayed. At least for the interim.

Drawing of the proposed layout for the new Grow Calgary urban farm in southeast Calgary. CONTRIBUTED

Right now, Grow Calgary’s current project is in the development permit process with the City of Calgary. There was to be work done on an access road (that would have been funded through $200,000 in promised leasehold improvements), and both electricity and agricultural grade water have to be secured.

Hughes said the City has been great to work with; the province, he said, has been an endless mess of hurdles. The agreement was originally crafted by the province, he’s adamant Grow Calgary didn’t ask for anything.

“We’re an example of when citizens take matters into their own hands, and try to find solutions to address this health, nutrition and food access issue,” Hughes said.

“So, we don’t really ask the government for anything. Initiatives like ours should be encouraged.”

Province says it’s paid up

The province responded Thursday, saying they’ve already spent $340,000 in-kind on the Grow Calgary move.

In an email from Diane Carter, press secretary to MLA Prasad Panda, Minister of Infrastructure, she said Alberta taxpayers couldn’t be expected to foot the rest of the bill.

“The Government of Alberta has tried to help Grow Calgary and we have taken great steps to do so. Over $340,000 in support has already been provided in kind to Grow Calgary, including site clean up, material storage and other costs,” the email statement read.

In the previous Alberta government letter, it did state that they’d helped find a new location. It also said they’ve provided clean up support for the previous site, logistical support for the relocation of machinery, provided opportunities for volunteers to move dirt and trees. It also said it provided a new licensing agreement. The response from Carter reinforced this.

(Hughes said the tree and soil-moving opportunities were in winter when the ground was frozen.)

“Alberta’s taxpayers will not pay an additional $560,000 to build a road or extend water and utilities to the new site,” Carter wrote.

Hughes said despite several alternate, lower cost solutions they offered, the province ignored them.

“This is their strategy, their plan,” Hughes said.

“That number is absolutely insane. They’ve spent more money on our farm than we did in six years.”

Hughes said the additional $560,000 is ridiculous. He believed services to the site would be under $100,000 and said the dirt road to the site would work appropriately. He feels the problem with the overall value is how the province is managing the situation, instead of working with him to find the lowest cost alternatives.

Grow Calgary’s future unclear

Hughes isn’t sure what the future holds for his organization. The leasehold upgrades aren’t affordable for the non-profit, volunteer-driven group, without the agreed-upon provincial help. It essentially brings things to a standstill.

“I guess they’ve decided to pick a community farm that grows food for giveaway to social agencies as where they’re going to start doing fiscal restraint. We’re going to be the ones that lead that charge?” Hughes said.

“I don’t want to play the victim. We just want to get our farm up and running.”

Over the years, Grow Calgary has provided food experience and education to more than 18,000 Calgary and area students and volunteer opportunities for more than 32,000 people, according to Hughes.