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Imagine Sunalta: Community hub ready to take root

If your Calgary community could have everything it wanted, what would that look like?

That’s the question the southwest community of Sunalta asked its residents eight years ago, after years of conceptualizing a new neighbourhood location that could be a sort of “community living room.”

They’re now weeks away from the development permit release on the $6 million first phase of a $10 million infrastructure project.

While they have a $1.25 million, five-year commitment from their partners, they still need to raise the bulk of that $6 million before the project can get shovels in the ground.

(In the process of writing this story, LiveWire Calgary was informed that Sunalta was turned down for a $3.25 million Investing in Canada Infrastructure Program (ICIP) grant for the building – but they’re moving ahead.)

The rise of Imagine Sunalta

Artist rendition of the future Sunalta community hub. CONTRIBUTED

In 2012, the United Way of Calgary and Area first approached the Sunalta Community Association about the concept of a community hub – a place where people could not only gather, but where programs could be delivered.

Jenn Balderston, executive director of the Sunalta Community Association, said over the course of 2013, they asked residents what they liked about the neighbourhood, what kind of spaces they wanted to see, along with programs and services they envisioned.

“From there, we put together a master plan of, if the community could have everything that it wanted, what would it look like? And the community designed the idea of this hub, this physical space, that people could come to – a sort of community living room, of sorts,” Balderston said.

After that, however, the project went quiet, Balderston said.

“But the board and community volunteers continued to work quietly on this idea of a community for everyone and community hall that did more than just rent the space to keep the lights on,” she said.

The Community Hubs initiative

The City of Calgary, the United Way of Calgary and Area and the Rotary Clubs of Calgary partner in the Community Hubs initiative to create neighbourhood gathering spaces.

There are seven projects that have been activated or in development around Calgary: The 1000 Voices at Genesis Centre, Bob Bahan Aquatic and Recreation Centre, Village Square Leisure Centre, the Alex Community Food Centre, Fuse 33 Makerspace, the Bowness Community Association and the Sunalta Community Association.

The intention is for these spaces to be activated by 2021, according to the city’s website.

Susan Brooke, VP Community Impact and Partnerships with United Way, said in working with the city they’d discovered that one in three Calgarians didn’t feel a sense of belonging in their community. Further, in the communities where hubs have been established, one in three people were living in poverty.

“So really what the hubs do is create a safe space for people to come in and access services and resources if they need that, and really help with their social inclusion so they feel like they belong and have a place that they can come,” said Brooke.

“They’re really that gathering place where people can go not only for themselves and help improve their own well-being, but also it helps build community.”

Imagine Sunalta gets jumpstart in 2015

Five years ago, the neighbourhood of Sunalta wanted to take their vision of a new community space forward.

That’s when Balderston joined the board and “they took a huge leap of faith and hired a full-time, paid position.”

“Quite frankly, there’s only so much, only so many hours you can give,” she said, noting to this point the project hopes were held together by community volunteers.

The United Way approached them again in 2016 with a community partnership plan. It was time to move ahead.

Two more years of engagement shaped their space. Business consultants sat at the table with community association volunteers, community members and architects. The result is a hub with a commercial community kitchen, kiosks, multi-purpose spaces, an expanded community garden and outdoor multi-sport hardscaping.

They also wanted something different. They wanted to build social enterprise into the facility.

“Because that way, if we have a viable business, we can generate our own profits and our profits can go right back into the community, and we don’t need to rely on something going forward,” Balderston said.

“So we said, ‘there’s 150-plus community associations that are struggling to keep their lights on and we don’t want to be there.’”

The $1.25 million contribution from the Community Hubs initiative kickstarted their business plan, the feasibility study and architectural design costs – all to get them to the development permit stage.

Balderston expects their plans will get approval – with conditions – later this month.

Preservation of the prior Sunalta community hall

Phase 3 of the project will be the renovation of their 100+-year-old community building. SCREENSHOT SUNALTA.NET

The current community hall is more than 100 years old, Balderston said. Like many other community association buildings across Calgary, they’re holding things together as the building passes its life cycle use.

“One of our biggest challenges is our building is a bit of a Frankenstein,” she said.

There’s an old barn and a skate shack on the property. The kitchen, however, is newer – probably from the 1980s.

“From the engagement with the community, we heard that there’s this real attachment to that building. There’s lots of memories there. Its iconic,” Balderston said.

“And so even though it doesn’t make sense, necessarily from a business perspective from the finances or the time investment, we said, this is important to our community, and we want to honor that.”

Restoration of the building will be phase 3 of the overall project. The first phase is a new, standalone building, phase 2 is to knock down the barn area and phase 3 is a renovation of the heritage hall.

“It would keep its charm, but now it would meet code.”

Imagine Sunalta capital campaign

Sunalta’s sky and earth plank campaign. SCREENSHOT SUNALTA.NET

Balderston said they’re doing several things to raise the cash necessary to begin the build. With Calgary’s still-struggling economy, they recognize a capital campaign for a community project like this is an uphill climb.

Hall rentals are one initial social enterprise they’re operating. They’re also partnering with local businesses – one is a coffee campaign with Calgary Heritage Roasting Company, the other is a swag partnership with Local Laundry.

They’re also operating a plank project for the new building, where people can sponsor either the sky (roof) or the earth (floor). There are 100 planks available for purchase.

Servicing the greater community

Sunalta hopes to begin construction on the new building in 2021. CONTRIBUTED / AMBER HARTNETT

Balderston said the community knows it’s not alone in the need for a gathering space that provides comfort and services. They want to open their space to the entire city.

“We always say that everyone is welcome in Sunalta,” Balderston said.

“Although it’s a grassroots, neighbourhood, community development, we don’t see the barrier between our community and the ones next to us. We consider (the building) citywide.”

The United Way hopes that building bridges helps the community thrive.

“I think communities are stronger when people are connected and working together,” said Brooke, noting there are powerful forces that drive people away from connecting.

“People don’t always have the time to connect that they would have many, many years ago – to provide that safe space and opportunity for people to really connect and feel like they belong. And so we really want to be able to scale this initiative, you know, in ways that make it more the norm than not.”

The Sunalta Community Association hopes to begin construction in 2021.